Tag Archives: James

Mystery, Merton and a Mountaintop – Luke 9:28-36

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on February 7, 2016

[sermon begins after Bible reading]

Luke 9:28-36 Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30 Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31 They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32 Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33 Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. 34 While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35 Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36 When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

[sermon begins]

What is it you seek?  What is the thing you are sure would make you solidly more you in the world?  The situation or the feeling or the skill that would make your life complete.  For you it might look like finding a life partner.  Or dead-lifting your next PR. Or that ACT score.  Or that next job.  Or that next exotic destination.  Do you dress up the thing you seek in noble terms?  Do you pursue peace?  Wisdom?  Happiness?  Love?  Or maybe, just maybe, do you even seek faith?  Faith…noble seeking, indeed.

One such noble seeker was Thomas Merton. He lived as a Trappist Monk for almost thirty years in the middle decades of the 1900s.[1]  His raucous younger years ended in his 20s when he entered the Abbey of Gethsemani – a strict, ascetic monastic order.  Brother Merton traveled all of the world to speak.  He wrote over 60 books as well as poems and articles.  He’s known for seeking world peace and civil rights.  His biography is compared to Augustine’s Confessions.  He’s also known for seeking God.  One writer defines Brother Merton as a “spiritual seeker” rather than a spiritual “settler.”[2]

A few years ago, my third father, Larry, gave me Brother Merton’s book, A Dialogue with Silence, published almost three decades after he died.  The book is filled with Brother Merton’s personal prayers and drawings.  Each time I pray these prayers, I’m struck by the longing in his seeking.  The longing to find.  The longing to find God.  The longing to find faith.  The longing to find himself by finding God.  The first prayer in the book prays this way:

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me.  I cannot know for certain where it will end.  Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I’m following Your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please You does I hope in fact please You.  And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.  I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.  And I know that, if I do this, You will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it.  Therefore I will trust You always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for You are ever with me, and You will never leave me to face my perils alone.” [3]

Brother Merton’s prayers are a seeker’s prayers.  He is looking, longing for something.  Part of his looking and longing takes shape in following.  Following the rules of the monastic order.  Following Jesus through prayer.

Peter, John, and James also find themselves following Jesus through prayer.  The mountain-high praying expedition comes eight days after Jesus talks to them about his death and resurrection.[4]  Up the mountain they go, feeling more than a bit tired by the time Jesus’ starts praying.  “Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep.”  Through the haze of heavy eyes comes the dazzling, beacon of Jesus. His ancestor friends Moses and Elijah join him appearing “in glory.”  A surreal, dazzling flashpoint that embodies the law, prophets, and grace in a single moment.  A Judean who’s-who that highlights the what’s-what for the Jesus.  His disciples are merely sleepy bystanders who witness it.

So much for witnesses. Bagging the peak, kneeling in prayer, and dazzling the disciples, ends in their silence about Jesus’ transfiguration.  We’re told the disciples keep silent in those days.  Their silence begs a question.  For whom does the light show take place?  It’s easy to make this about the disciples.  Their experience.  Their clarity about the Messiah.  Perhaps that is a happy side effect.  There may be more.

I know there are some of us in the congregation who can speak to having had or witnessed a mysterious experience.  Some of you tell me about them.  The conversation often begins hesitantly and very often happens at a bedside of someone who is dying.  The person who is within a few days of dying begins talking to people who have died before them.  Sometimes it’s a full conversation between the person dying and the one who has already died.  Sometimes people point.  Sometimes people will ask if you can see them too.

These conversations between the dead and dying have happened often enough in my hospice and pastoral work that I will give families a heads up so that they are prepared if it happens.  These conversations between the dead and the dying are inexplicable.  Those of us still living have no idea what it means although it’s tempting to try and explain the experience.

The 18th century Enlightenment of Western thought opened up the possibility of explanation for experience. 19th century Modernity promised that human ingenuity would result in inalienable truth and certainty.  Neurological and psychological explanations get trotted out to try and explain phenomena like the one experienced by people who are dying.  The 21st century shift towards Postmodernity is disillusioned with the modern promise, having experienced the limits and the threats of human understanding.  The timeline is not as tidy as this brief history of Western thought would make it seem.  Postmodern mystery is in tension with modern certainty as evidenced daily in the public square.

I, for one, am delighted to be a student of scripture in the postmodern context. You see, modernity trains all of us to be good scientists.  To make a hypothesis and see if enough evidence stacks up in support of it so that it can be true.  Postmodernism often leaves an open question with just a bit more room for the transcendent, for mystery.

One example of making room for mystery comes by way of Jesus’ transfiguration.  A modern might try to come up with an explanation of what happened or ask whether it did happen.  A postmodern revels in its transcendence – allowing for possibilities

A colleague of mine was in Augustana’s sanctuary and made the comment that its architecture communicates the transcendent even as is grounded by human experience.  From the long aisle that moves through the worshipers on a level floor to the stairs that go up to the first landing of the chancel to more stairs that go up to the communion table to the cross moving the eyes up to the high ceiling.  There is a sense of connection to the transcendent but also a sense of the limits of understanding it.

Peter, John, and James’ are connected to the transcendent with very little ability to understand it.  They witness the razzle, dazzle Jesus and his two long ago dead ancestors in the faith.  Jesus is a dead-man walking at this point in the story.  He’s just about to enter his last human days.  He starts talking to people who have died before him.  What if this dazzling moment is about Jesus and for Jesus in his few remaining human days?  What if it has nothing to do with his disciples or with us?

One of the charges of pastoral ordination from First Corinthians goes like this, “Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries.”  Another charge is to not give “false security or illusory hope.”  These may as well be charges to the priesthood of all believers.  All Christians.  There are times when what happens in Jesus is just simply not about us, our experience, or what we make of it.  It’s about Jesus for Jesus’ sake.  The disciples on the mountain with him are disoriented in a cloud of silence.  From the cloud comes God’s voice, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”  The disciples listen and remain silent.

In the words of preacher Gerhard Forde, “For who has heard of such a thing—that one is made right with God just by stopping all activity, being still and listening? What the words say to us, really, is that for once in your life you must just shut up and listen to God, listen to the announcement: You are just before God for Jesus sake!”[5]

Pastor Forde’s point, that we are justified for Jesus’ sake, raises more questions than answers.  One big question is, “Why?”  Scripture asserts that Jesus’s death on the cross is for you and for all.  Today, the mystery of the transfiguration seems to be about Jesus.

Christian mystics are a postmodern thread throughout history.  Perhaps these mystics are helpful conversation partners for us now.  The mystics, who have died before us, are in conversation with us through their writings today.  Brother Merton is one of them. He listened to God in silence. He prayed in silence. Here is one more of his prayers:

“…I feel as if everything has been unreal. It is as if the past has never existed. The things I thought were so important – because of the effort I put into them – have turned out to be of small value. The things I never thought about, the things I was never able either to measure or to expect, they were the things that mattered. But in this darkness I would not be able to say, for certain, what is was that mattered. That, perhaps is part of Your unanswerable question!”[6]

For today, let’s turn Jesus’ shiny moment over to him.  Let it be for his sake.  And, for today, let Jesus be for you…for his sake.  Alleluia and amen.

 

[1] Thomas Merton Biography. The Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University. http://merton.org/chrono.aspx

[2] Anthony E. Clark. “Can You Trust Thomas Merton?” Catholic Answers Magazine: http://www.catholic.com/magazine/articles/can-you-trust-thomas-merton

[3] Thomas Merton. Dialogues with Silence. (HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), vii.

[4] Luke 9:21-22

[5] Clint Schnekloth. “How I Learned to Be a (post)Lutheran.” October 28, 2015.  http://www.clintschnekloth.com/how-i-learned-to-be-a-postlutheran/

[6] Merton, 77.

Back to the Now – Mark 10:35-35

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on October 18, 2015

Mark 10:35-45 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36 And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38 But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” 39 They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” 41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42 So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

[sermon begins]

At some point during these last couple of years, some of you may have received an early morning e-mail from me and now know I’m an early riser.  For some unfathomable reason, my brain seems to like those pre-dawn hours best. Recently, on a second cup of coffee and well into my thoughts for the day, my husband Rob came walking into the kitchen searching for his first cup of coffee.  I was watching the sunrise as he casually asked, “What’s on your mind, honey?”  I answered, “I’m pondering the merits of hierarchical leadership versus the ‘liberal’ communal ideal.”  Ever the funny man, he turned on his heel to exit and said dryly, “I’m out.”  Hilarity, laughter until tears, ensued.  Fun, and funny, times.

The point of this story about coffee time in the kitchen is that there is a lot on my mind about leadership and systems – countries, families, and congregations.  Augustana especially.  No surprise there.  Pastor Pederson retired almost a year and a half ago.  Pastor Hytjan is our second interim pastor. We’re a large church in a call process for a Senior Pastor.

Reading the Bible verses today fits right into my current mode of thinking which is tricky territory for a preacher.  You’ll have to help double check my thinking on the way through. Jesus is with the twelve apostles.  They are a group of people, they have a leader.  They are a system.  And they are in an uncertain time.

In the verses just before the ones read today.  Jesus had pulled the twelve aside and told them for the second time that they were headed to Jerusalem where the Son of Man, Jesus, would be handed over to be condemned to death, killed, and would rise again on the third day.  The apostles are understandably concerned about what this means moving forward.  The future sounds terrible, making the current moment uncertain.

I’m curious about James and John.  They have some things right.  Their instinct is to move toward Jesus.  He’s a good place to start.  We learn this in Sunday School.  We sing it in our songs.  When it doubt, head towards Jesus.  If you pick up a pew Bible, and turn to the 10th chapter in Mark, you’ll find out that James and John come forward to Jesus immediately following his second speech about his death.  The two of them move lightning fast.  It’s like they fly right by the other ten apostles who seem to be frozen in place.  It makes me curious.  Were there conversations between James and John before that point?  Maybe after the first time Jesus talked about his death.  Had they already strategized between themselves to leave the ten out?  Or was it more of a flight or fight response?  Was it reactive rather than thoughtful?

It’s entirely possible that their adrenal glands were kicking into fight or flight and that they didn’t think.  Oh, James and John sounded thoughtful alright.  There were words involved after all.  Interesting aside, just because words are involved, doesn’t mean gray-matter thinking is involved. James and John said to Jesus, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”

James and John want to be at Jesus’ right and left hand in his glory.  This request of theirs compresses Jesus into a two-sided, two-dimensional paper cut-out figure.  More importantly, James and John are also looking to the future to feel secure.  Looking to some future glory, that they do not understand, for security in the moment. But Jesus was onto them.  He replied, “You do not know what you are asking.”  Silly apostles.

In Jesus’ words that follow, the other apostles unfreeze.  They become angry. Fight-or-flight hangover perhaps.  Cortisol hormone still flowing from the fear of Jesus speech about Jerusalem and death.  Nobody knows what to do with the ‘rising again’ comment.  But now the other ten apostles are unfrozen, angry, and they circle up with James and John around Jesus.  Jesus is their leader too after all.

And thank God for Jesus.  Because the apostles are all looking to an indefinable future to feel secure in the now.  Again, thank God for Jesus.  Because Jesus responds to James, John, and the other apostles three-dimensionally.  In effect, Jesus answers James and John’s need for a back to the future safety net by reorienting the apostles back towards each other in the now.  Jesus says, “…whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”

I read an article recently about couples who tend to stay partnered well over time.[1]  There was some research done by The Gottman Institute along with the University of Washington on hundreds of couples to figure out why some couples do well and why some don’t.  They identified behaviors that could predict marital outcomes from staying married happily to staying married unhappily to being divorced.  I’ll save you some time.  And tell you that after years of observation that netted reams of data, these researchers identified kindness as the number one indicator for staying happily married.

There’s one behavior worth mentioning in light of the Bible reading today.  It has to do with “turning toward” and “turning away.”  The research suggests that, in part, good outcomes in a relationship are consistently about turning toward the other person when we’re under stress ourselves.  The all too easy route is to turn away when we are under stress.  To turn away to our phone, to our gardening, to our newspaper, to Facebook, to whatever it is, and to ignore the other person when we’re under stress.  This is true in marriage, in our place of work, in our school, in our churches. It’s true anywhere people are in groups and try to figure things out together.

When James and John are in an uncertain situation.  Their first instinct is to turn away from the other apostles.  We can call it fight or flight.  We can even cast a good intention to it and suggest that they were focused on Jesus.  But the bottom line is that they turned away from their people.  Under pressure, they were not in connection, they were not in a posture of kindness to the other apostles.

The Bible verses in Mark show James and John doing an end-run around the other apostles on their way to Jesus as they seek security in an unknown future.  They are right that Jesus is the person to turn to in an uncertain time.  But it’s the end-run around their people that was problematic.  Jesus reminds James and John and the other ten apostles to look around.  Reorienting them, turning them towards each other and serving like Jesus who came to serve.

To be clear, leadership is good.  A good leader makes a difference in every good system.  As our next Senior Pastor will most certainly be identified, called and make a difference in the future of our congregation for the sake of the gospel.  In the meantime, good people of Augustana, we continue as co-workers in the gospel, in the here and now.  As Jesus reorients James, John, and the ten into the task at hand, Jesus reorients us, too – to continue turning towards each other and to continue serving as Jesus who came to serve.

Jesus does not just hand out a to-do list.  Jesus just handed out a done-for-you list.  This reorientation toward each other is done for us by Jesus.  A done-for-you list, done by Jesus, at Jesus’ own expense, on a cross.  This is a freedom toward each other for our own sake and for the sake of the world.

Christian freedom means that what Jesus has done for you on the cross, Jesus has done for you today, and tomorrow, and the next day, and for all the days ever.  You are made free in Jesus.  James and John were looking to secure their future in an uncertain time.  The promise of God in Jesus is that your future is secure.  You live free today in the love of God, forgiven by the very one who created you, and sent back to the now.  Thank God for Jesus.  Amen.

 

 

 

[1] Masters of Love.  Emily Esfahani Smith.  The Atlantic.  June 12, 2014. http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/06/happily-ever-after/372573/

Mark 1:14-20 – A Divine Dare [OR When Good Plans Bite The Dust]

Mark 1:14-20; Jonah 3:1-5,10 –  A Divine Dare [OR When Good Plans Bite The Dust]

Pastor Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on January 25, 2015

 

[sermon begins after this Bible story]

Mark 1:14-20 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” 16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

 

[sermon begins]

Living with a couple of teenagers, there are these things that happen in my home loosely called “homework parties.”  Sometimes they’re more party than homework although homework seems to get done somehow.  They happen on various days throughout the week around the dinner table.  There’s the requisite books, pencils, calculators that I’ve come to think of as homework camo.  There’s typically food involved – sometimes dinner, sometimes snacks, but always food.  Often I’m in the kitchen/family room either reading, writing, or watching TV.  An occasional teenager will migrate through on a quest for more food and we’ll have a bit of a chat.  Since some of these teenagers are high school seniors, the chats include tidbits about what’s next after high school.  The answers vary.  Some will continue onto college, some will find work, some aren’t sure yet.

What seems to be consistent, though, is this growing sense of urgency to figure it out.  That makes sense.  We’ve cruised through the beginning of the New Year and graduation is only part of a semester away.  Sometimes, if one of the kids seems to be lingering and the chat keeps going, I’ll share a bit of my own first try at the post-high school life.

I had just turned 17 that August before heading out the door to college.  The short of it is that it didn’t go well.  Friends were far more interesting than physics.  In June, at the end of the school year, I was still 17.  My parents came out to my college town, took me to lunch, and told me that the last 9 months had been “a poor return on their investment.”  I was invited home where the offer was to get a job and hit the books at the City College to finish my nursing degree there.  At the time, I was devastated.  Ten years later, I could see my culpability and had a vague appreciation that they had done what they thought was best.  Now as a parent of a high-school senior, I have some sense of their frustration that led to the courage it took on their part to do what they did.

When I tell this story to the teens who move in and out of my kitchen, it ends with something like this, “Remember, there are a lot of ways through this life.”  Some ways are created by our choices and some ways we figure out as things happen to us out of the blue.  Regardless, there are a lot of ways through this life.

Today’s Bible story is triggered by a trauma.  John the Baptist has just been arrested.  Prior to his arrest, John was baptizing a lot of people, including Jesus. John’s arrest starts the action.  John and Jesus are known to each other and also to the Galileans – Simon, Andrew, James, and John. Matt Skinner suggests that the four fishers had likely grown up around each other.  They had probably heard John and Jesus teaching as well as simply known each other as locals.[1]  So the action that John’s arrest instigates is connected backwards into history and relationship even as it moves forward.  And forward it does.

Jesus walks by the sea, calling the fishers off of their boats.  There’s no explanation in the text for it really.  It’s the shortest persuasive street preaching outside of Jonah’s eight word sermon to the people of Ninevah.[2]  Too bad Jonah isn’t available for some preaching here with us today.  For all intents and purposes, Jesus tells the fishers that the time is now and the kingdom of God is brushing by them – meaning, God is present.  The fishers’ are immediately inspired to leave their nets and their boats and follow.[3]  They are one more example of the many ways through this life as a Jesus follower.

Today at worship we are installing the newly elected and called members of our Congregational Council who help lead the congregation somewhat like a Board of Directors might.  A few months ago, we installed the called members of our Transition Team.  These people are collecting information from all of us in the congregation so that we might be able to describe Augustana as we are now, while trying to describe a future as we go through a call process for the next Senior Pastor.  There is some attention to detail needed while leading a congregation or calling a new pastor.  In the midst of those details, there are also things that require immediate action.  The trick for Jesus followers is figuring out a direction through the many ways our life together could go while keeping the main thing, the main thing.  The main thing being what Jesus calls “the good news of God”.  Sometimes we also call it the “gospel”.

It is the good news of God that sustains a lot of us as we figure out our way through this life.  For some of us, this may mean simply muddling through today.  There is something reassuring to me about the immediacy of Jesus-following along the lines of the Galilean fishers who likely started out with a different plan for their day that didn’t include leaving behind nets, boats, and father to follow Jesus.  How many times have you started out your day, your week, or your year with a plan?  You have a good, doable plan only to have it subverted by an entirely new thing that seems neither good nor doable?

It didn’t make sense for the Galilean fishers to follow Jesus.  Frankly, it may not make much sense for us either.  There may be ways in which our plans are being challenged and destabilized – plans that are biting the dust either by our own fault, somebody else’s fault, or merely by happenstance. Jesus dares us to trust in God’s presence regardless, in the kingdom of God coming near no matter what else comes.

Jesus calls us to follow regardless of our plans today or tomorrow.  We can’t follow perfectly in this world.  Not even those Galilean fishers can pull it off when the going gets tough around the cross.   The time is now and the kingdom of God is brushing by you, meaning God IS present.  That’s why the call to follow is connected to the good news of Jesus.   We know now what the Galilean fishers did not know then, this does end well. Thanks be to God.



[1] Matt Skinner.  Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN.  Mark 1:14-20, Sermon Brainwave on WorkingPreacher.org for Sunday, January 25, 2015.

[2] Jonah 3:4

[3] Again from Matt Skinner [see footnote 1]: Following Jesus is one of the main messages in the Gospel of Mark.  In Mark, Jesus wants followers. In contrast with John’s gospel in which Jesus wants witnesses and in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus is after disciples.

 

Mark 9:2-9 “Death and Dazzle”

Mark 9:2-9 “Death and Dazzle”

February19, 2012 – Caitlin Trussell

Augustana Lutheran Church, Denver, CO

 

Mark 9:2-9 – Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, 3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” 8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. 9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

 

 

I love the way the church marks time – around the life of Jesus and around the life of the Christian community.  I spent my early childhood in a Christian tradition that marked time in this churchy way but then grew up in one that didn’t and as a result now I’m very aware of being in time differently than many of my friends and family.  It took me awhile to get used to the liturgical year but I developed a love of this alternative way of moving through the world and moving through time.

The church year begins oh-so-softly with the flicker of candles in Advent, moves into the huge fanfare of the birth of Jesus at Christmas, of Emmanuel “God with Us”, followed by the festive 12 days of Christmas and then floods us these last seven weeks of Epiphany with all that Light, Light and more Light of Jesus’ life until we find ourselves here, at his Transfiguration, as Jesus’ very being dazzles on a mountaintop.

Jesus takes us with him and leads us up the mountain with Peter, James and John until we’re by ourselves and he is transfigured before our eyes, becoming dazzling white.  And, not only are we with Jesus, we’re with the heavy hitters of the past – Moses and Elijah who are, by their very being, challenging our ways of loving God and loving each other.  In the midst of all this, what has become of Peter, James and John?  Being there has terrified them because, well, who wouldn’t at least be on edge in this razzle-dazzle, time mash-up, supernatural Light show?

But Peter is reacting in this moment at a deeper level of terror too.  He is an observant Jew who celebrates the Feast of Booths, one of the three biblically mandated festivals in the Hebrew Scriptures that he himself celebrates year after year.[1]  He is also a good church historian one who is aware of the Jewish expectation laid out in Zechariah.  He remembers the temple talk about this “festival that was considered a possible time for God’s taking control of God’s creation and beginning the age of shalom.”[2]

Put more bluntly, Peter is sure that Moses and Elijah being there is a sign of the end of the world as he knows it.  A world that God is now going to reclaim fully and completely in one massive, redeeming fell swoop.  On top of this mountain, Peter has caught the cosmic shift, and Peter is, quite respectfully, not going to let Moses and Elijah build their own booths for the big event – even if he is terrified!

Listen to what Peter says when he doesn’t know what to say because of his terror, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here.”  I imagine Peter thinking that it’s good to be with Jesus, Moses and Elijah at the same time that it is good to be witnesses to this great cosmic moment in God’s time.  I can imagine him thinking that, “it is good to be me in this place with these people because I’ve been prepared to know what’s happening and I know what to do.”  I can imagine this because I have felt that clarity of being in the right place at the right time.  And I have also felt the longing of wanting to be there.  And then I began to wonder how much of Peter’s clarity about it being good to be there is born of Peter’s longing to be in the right place at the right time.  And then I began to wonder about how good it is for Peter to be up there on the mountain with the big three of Moses, Elijah and Jesus.  Peter, named by Jesus as the Rock upon whom Jesus would build his church, up there on that mountain in terror and this was good?  Peter, the Rock of the Church, terrified.

This Transfiguration story, especially Peter’s terrified role in it, has me wondering about the church in our time.  There’s a six-minute video making the rounds on Facebook this week of Diana Butler Bass’ perspective on the church in our uncertain age.[3]  She studied and taught American Religious History for many years and has been thinking a lot about being church in the 21st century.  The point that I carried away from her interview is that there are many outside of the church that still want to connect with God and still love the tradition of the church in some way but are not finding the connection.  She argues that faith is in the longing of everyone around us – us being the church.  While I think she and I would have a wonderful conversation about the origin of faith, more importantly in this moment, I want to suggest that we in the church long as well – perhaps similarly to Peter on that mountaintop.

We long for God to fulfill God’s promises – or at least our understanding of them – and we want the traditions of our ancestors to point us in the right direction.

We long for the task at hand to be straightforward and doable.  Like Peter, right? – Age of Shalom, Festival of Booths, let’s build some booths!

I hear this longing from pastors about the upcoming bishop election for this synod – that we need to elect someone who can imagine us into a new future for the church and tell us how to get there in a straightforward and doable way.

Let’s check back in on the mountaintop.  After Peter’s moment of brilliant clarity, while the terror is still a fresh, metallic taste on his tongue and his words about the good of “being here” hang in awkward silence, the cloud overshadows them – clouding out the vision, the light and Peter’s words – shrouding the small band on the mountain.  A cloud with supernatural sound effects no less, as the voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”  And the terror continues as they look around and see only Jesus.

So, like Peter, some in the church are made aware of God’s ultimate freedom to act in ways that dazzle the senses whether on a mountaintop or otherwise.  And, like Peter, some in the church are looking around and seeing only Jesus.  Jesus, who leads them down from the mountain to a very different hill – one loaded with crosses, and to a very different kind of terror – one loaded with death.   And, as church, we join Peter in this tension, caught between God’s dazzling power and God’s death on a cross, wondering what it is that we’re supposed to do now.

And it is right here, smack dab in the middle of that tension, that the Spirit gifts us in the scripture.  Jesus is the one who takes Peter, James and John and leads them up the mountain and back down again.  And Jesus is the one who tells them they can tell the story only after he has risen from the dead.  Jesus’ caution to the disciple teases us with resurrection of Easter but the trip down the mountain also “reminds us that the way to Easter is through the cross.”[4]  The way to new life is through the cross.  I had a preaching professor who would boil down this Christian good news in her glorious southern accent by saying, “It’s all about Liiife-Death-Liiife.”  And she would flash her hands opened and closed as she said it just like that, “Liiife-Death-Liiife.”   The cross is the way through.  Peter is right.  It IS good for us to be here both tethered by tradition and set free…because Jesus is Lord and he unleashes freedom through the cross.  Jesus gifts freedom and the Spirit’s inspiration to imagine what might be next for you and for the church including the freedom to fail along the way.

Jesus, God with us full of life and light, stood on a holy precipice, a point of no return on his way to a death that reveals God who relinquished that life so that new life is possible.

Jesus, God with us, reassures us that we do not stand alone when staring downhill at the crosses that would claim us – whether they are ones upon which the church or we ourselves hang.

 

Jesus’ dazzles when he hangs with us in our terror,

shedding light in our darkest nights,

comforting us when we fall,

revealing the truth of our weakness, and

illuminating our need so that, when the cloud lifts,

we see only Jesus.

 

 

 



[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sukkot

[2] Sarah Heinrich on Working Preacher 2012 for Mark 9:2-9. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=2/19/2012

[3] Diana Butler Bass on Day1http://day1.org/3655-does_the_church_have_a_future__diana_butler_bass

[4] Arland Hultren, Working Preaching Website, Luther Seminary, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?tab=1#