The Tenacity of Love

Sermon on 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Audio for this sermon may be found here.

imgresA few years ago, the New York Times published an article titled “At First she Didn’t Succeed, but she Tried and Tried Again (960 Times).” The feature profiled a 69 year old grandmother from South Korea named Cha Sa Soon and chronicled her five year quest to attain a driver’s license. During this period, Ms. Cha traveled by bus from her home in the country to a testing center in the city several times a week. After failing the 700th time, she became something of a national celebrity, not only because she was a loveable underdog, but because of her dogged persistence. When she finally passed the test, Ms. Cha earned accolades from her countrymen and made international news. More importantly, she made it clear that her perseverance had been worthwhile. By outlasting the doubters, Cha Sa Soon became a symbol of what can happen when we refuse to give up.

When Paul wrote to the Corinthians, he was addressing a community plagued by conflict. Much of this dissension stemmed from the fact that there was a faction in the church who believed that they had discerned the only way to live an authentic Christian life. This group believed that they had it all figured out. In particular, they valued knowledge and spiritual gifts above all else. These Corinthians thought the ability to speak in tongues, to make prophetic utterances, and to understand the mysteries of the universe were all key components of the Christian life. As a result, church members who possessed these gifts disdained anyone in the community who lacked knowledge or spiritual charisma. Though it might seem that these gifted members of the community were just trying to prove that they were better than their less talented brothers and sisters, their disdain is actually slightly more complicated. These gifted members of the community believed that knowledge, tongues, and prophecy were the most effective way to commune with the divine, that they were vehicles for connecting with that which is eternal. Indeed, the Corinthians thought of prophecy, tongues, and knowledge as tools for addressing the fundamental human anxiety: how do we deal with the fact that we will die? These members of the Corinthian community believed that their mastery of human knowledge and their ability to speak in tongues and prophesy allowed them to escape the tyranny and inevitability of death. This is why those gifted members of the church regarded others in the community with contempt: the others weren’t trying hard enough to fix the ultimate human dilemma.

imagesPaul’s response to his congregation is intriguing. He does not methodically demonstrate that their way of thinking is flawed as we might expect; in fact, he declines to engage with their position at all. Instead, he implies that the spiritual gifts they so highly prize have no value in themselves. In spite of their knowledge, Paul suggests that the Corinthians have no idea how the world really works and that their preoccupation with knowledge and spiritual gifts will fail them in the end. Paul insists that there is a better way. He dismisses the Corinthian preoccupation with knowledge and spiritual charisma and instead offers a glimpse God’s ultimate purpose.

It is in response to the Corinthian conflict that Paul offers his famous meditation on the mystery of love. In this meditation, Paul’s implication is clear: everything we think is important pales in comparison to the gift of love. For Paul, love is what gives meaning to the things we value. Paul is at his most poetic when he tells the Corinthians that those who speak in tongues without love are noisy gongs and clashing cymbals and reminds them that those possessed of immeasurable knowledge and prophetic powers are nothing if they do not have love. This is not to say that Paul considers these spiritual gifts inherently useless. Indeed, Paul makes the startling claim that the faith to move mountains, a virtue that is celebrated specifically elsewhere in the New Testament, is worthless without love. For Paul, nothing can have value, not even the greatest spiritual gift, unless it is animated by love.

The reason for this is that love has staying power. The Corinthians deluded themselves into believing that their spiritual gifts could forestall the inevitability of death. Paul disabuses them of this fantasy: “But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end.” Paul acknowledges the painful reality at the heart of the human condition: all of the things we think are important will come to an end, all of the things that preoccupy us will cease, all of the things that we believe can free us from the tyranny of death will ultimately come to an end. The only thing that does not end, that will not end, that cannot end is love. Love persists; love abides; love doesn’t give up; love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.”

We’re on somewhat dangerous ground here, because it is possible to fetishize love, to turn it into one of the tools that the Corinthians imagined they could use to cheat death. This is what we tend to do when we sentimentalize love, when we think of it as a magic formula that can solve any problem. Hollywood loves to do this, to have every problem disappear when the protagonists realize their love for one another. Love, however, cannot solve every problem. Indeed, sometimes love makes those problems even more painful. The love of a wife will not necessarily cure her husband’s clinical depression. The love of a daughter will not heal her mother of cancer. The love of a parent will not necessarily prevent a child from spiraling into self-destruction. What love can do is endure every single one of these trials. Love won’t necessarily fix everything, but it can outlast anything. This is why the ultimate expression of love is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. By raising Jesus Christ from the dead, God proves that love truly endures all things, including death. In the resurrection, God affirms that nothing can separate us from God’s love, not even the fact that we will die.

imagesIn just a few moments, we will baptize Charlotte Grace into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Just after she is covered with the waters of baptism, she will be anointed with oil using these words: “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever.” Baptism is neither admission to a club nor a guarantee that everything will go well for us. Rather, baptism is an affirmation that God’s love for us can outlast anything. As Christians, we are called to manifest this love to the world, confident that God will never give up on us.

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Unlike the Ones I Used to Know

Sermon on Luke 2:1-20 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, PA on Christmas Eve, 2014.  Audio for this sermon may be found here.

images“It was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!”  So ends A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens’ story about Ebenezer Scrooge and his overnight conversion from grumpy malcontent to jolly humanitarian.  When Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843, it is unlikely that he could have imagined how ubiquitous his little parable and its protagonist would become.  Scrooge’s story has become an indelible part of our culture: ensembles as diverse as the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Muppets have presented adaptations of this “ghost story of Christmas.”

In spite of its omnipresence, there is something very curious about the way we remember the Dickens classic.  Though it ends with Scrooge amending his ways by making a generous donation to charity, reconciling with his nephew, and giving Bob Cratchit a raise, we remember Scrooge as the “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner” that Dickens introduces at the beginning of the story.  We ignore Scrooge’s Christmas Eve conversion and focus instead on his previous identity as a misanthropic miser.  Why else would “Scrooge” be the near-universal epithet for anyone who does not enjoy the Christmas season?

Our failure to remember Scrooge’s conversion is a symptom of a larger reality: as human beings, we have a hard time believing that anyone can change.  If we encountered Ebenezer Scrooge after his transformation, I suspect that most of us would cynically wonder what his angle was.  We tend to live our lives according to maxims like “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” or “a leopard doesn’t change its spots” or “there’s nothing new under the sun.”  This inherent suspicion is a form of self-preservation; if we refuse to trust that anyone or anything can change, then we can never be hurt.  If we refuse to acknowledge that new things are possible, then we can continue to live our lives in the same way we always have.

Tonight, however, we hear an angelic announcement that something new has happened, that our world has changed, that life will no longer be the same.  It’s easy to be preoccupied by the familiarity of Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus, to be distracted by the images of swaddling clothes and heavenly hosts, and to listen nostalgically for the dulcet tones of Linus Van Pelt of the Charlie Brown Christmas instead of the “good news” at the heart of this story.  When the angel of the Lord says, “behold, I bring you good news of a great joy,” one might think that he is merely providing information, that this is the first century equivalent of “breaking news.”  But the word that we translate as “good news” refers to much more than new information; it is the same word that was used to announce the birth of a new emperor.  Luke implies that Christ’s birth represents a fundamental change in the political reality of the world.

imgresThough Luke describes the birth of Jesus with a word typically associated with social upheaval, the political situation in the world doesn’t seem to have changed all that much.  After all, Luke reminds us that Augustus is the emperor of Rome and that Quirinius is the governor of Syria.  There’s no indication that either leader is on his way out or that the time is ripe for the arrival of a new king.  In fact, Augustus reigned for more than twenty years prior to the birth of Jesus and would rule for twenty years more.  If anything, Luke implies that Jesus is born during a time of great political stability.  It was a time a time when Rome’s power was largely unchallenged at home and completely unrivaled abroad.  It was a time when the Emperor was so feared that he could arbitrarily order people to the towns of their birth in order to conduct a mostly meaningless census.  It was a time when the Jewish people were aware and reminded frequently that their tenuous right to worship one God could be revoked without any warning.  All of this makes one wonder how the birth of Jesus could possibly be “good news.”  A tiny child born in a backwater province couldn’t possibly challenge the most powerful empire the world had ever known.  By worldly standards, the birth of Jesus would change nothing: tyrants would persist in forcing their will on the weak and the world would continue as it always had.

But this assumes that Jesus was a typical king. Luke goes out of his way to illustrate that Jesus was not a typical king.  While most worldly rulers are heralded by military parades and housed in magnificent palaces, the king we welcome tonight was heralded by a humble donkey and housed in a stable.  While most worldly rulers spend their time among the elite in the centers of commerce and culture, the king we welcome tonight was first announced to downtrodden shepherds on a Judean hillside.  While most worldly rulers demonstrate their power through cruelty and violence, the king we welcome tonight reveals his power in compassion and love.  And while most worldly rulers would do anything to stay in power and preserve their lives, the king we welcome tonight gave himself up for us on a Roman cross.  Tonight, we affirm the deep logic of the Christian faith: in the Incarnation, God became one of us and empowered us to live lives of freedom and grace even in the midst of a world dominated by oppression and fear.  Jesus Christ invites us to let go of our belief that everything always stays the same and enter into a new way of being.

Christmas is often a time for nostalgia.  We bring ancient decorations out of storage, sing songs that we have sung year after year, and return to traditions that have been part of our lives for as long as we can remember.  It is a time that we remember Scrooge before his transformation, when we dream of Christmases “just like the ones we used to know.”  Christmas, however, is about more than mere remembrance; it is about recognizing the way in which the good news of the Incarnation is, in fact, news.  This has been a year of incredible turmoil.  From the rumblings of war in Europe to the specter of terrorism in the Middle East to the proliferation of violence on the streets of this country, this year has been a potent reminder that our world is often dominated by oppression and fear.  We might be tempted to despair, to assume that bad news like this is simply the way of the world.  Tonight, however, we are called to remember the “good news” of Christ’s birth and embrace the new way of being that God has inaugurated in the arrival of this holy child.  On Christmas, we are called to focus not on the way things have always been, but on the way things can be when we live our lives shaped by the Incarnation.  Christmas calls us to hear and be transformed by the good news that God entered this broken world and is making all things new.

Fear

PrintA few months ago, I was eating a disappointing breakfast sandwich  in a restaurant at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport when I overheard a group of people mention the word “theology.”  Being a sucker for theological inquiry, I slowed my chewing and listened a little more closely.  To my surprise, the group was not discussing Athanasius or Thomas Aquinas (the fact that this surprised me tells you a lot about who I am), but rather the Illuminati and their sinister plot to take over the world.  For those of you who are not up to date on your conspiracy theories, the Illuminati are supposedly a secret cabal of wealthy and powerful individuals bent on world domination.  While this narrative is boilerplate for any self-respecting conspiracy theorist, I was curious to hear it framed in terms of Christian theology.  The group of people I heard talking in the airport apparently believed that the Illuminati’s secret control of the world was part of God’s plan to bring the world to an end.  Several members of the group repeatedly said things like, “God has already set the plan in motion” and “It’s only a matter of time.”  When I decided I could no longer remain in the same room without holding my tongue, I abandoned my sandwich and wandered to my gate.

Though I was initially surprised by this marriage of old-school conspiracy theories to dispensationalist theology, it occurs to me that these worldviews have similar perspectives.  Those who subscribe to both of these worldviews are convinced that someone else is in complete control of the world, that there is nothing they can do to influence the course of history.  In both of these worldviews, the only solution is enlightenment; the only way we can deal with our lack of control is to realize that we have no control, to realize that the puppet strings are being held by someone else.  And I think that both of these worldviews stem primarily from fear of the unknown.  The only way some people can deal with the very human fear of uncertainty is to deny that anything is uncertain.  If it’s all part of the plan, and they realize that it’s all part of the plan, then they can take solace in their enlightened understanding of the world.  Both conspiracy theories and dispensationalist theologies, in other words, can be sources of profound comfort.

Yet, by denying the reality of uncertainty, these worldviews fail to help people deal with reality.  Not only that, the idea that God has set a definite plan in motion is not terribly Scriptural.  As I mentioned yesterday, one of the central affirmations of Christian theology is that we have free will, that we have a choice to be in relationship with God.  In fact, St. Paul argues that our reconciliation to God occurs because of Christ’s faithful obedience, because of Christ’s exercise of his freedom.  Faithfulness, therefore, is not about being certain about what is going to happen next, it is about trusting that God will be faithful to us even when we don’t know what is going to happen next.  Faithfulness is not about believing that God is controlling every aspect of our lives, it is about trusting that God is with us as we move through this life.  As you walk the way of the cross during Holy Week, I pray that you will be comforted by the fact that God is with you even in the midst of uncertainty.

Limitless

imgresOne of the most striking elements of the West Texas landscape is the almost boundless sense of space.  Driving north to Lubbock or west to Odessa, it is easy to be overwhelmed by how far one can see, by how little gets in the way of one’s vision.  Where I come from, the only place you can see any distance is near the ocean (there are too many trees or hills in the way elsewhere); but in West Texas, you can see for miles and miles wherever you turn.  Of course, the boundlessness of the landscape allows West Texans to experience a wide variety of natural phenomena that others have a hard time imagining: spectacularly terrifying thunderstorms that you can see coming long before they arrive, towering dust storms that blot out the sun, and glorious sunrises and sunsets that seem to fill the entire world with uncreated light.  The landscape of West Texas is beautiful not because of what it features, but because it is not hemmed in by limits or boundaries.

There is a level at which the boundlessness of the landscape shapes the way that West Texans look at the world.  As a result of the fact that, in the words of one humorist, “West Texas is the world headquarters of nothing,” residents of this area are inclined to believe that you have to make your own way in this world, that no one is going to show you what steps you have to take to move forward.  And since the landscape of this region is not hemmed in by limits or boundaries, West Texans are inclined to believe that nearly anything is possible, that there are no limits on what we are capable of doing if we set our minds to it.  Both the landscape and ethos of West Texas are shaped by an abiding sense of limitlessness, a belief that the obstacles in front of us are temporary, a feeling that nearly anything is possible.

Over the past several weeks, we have heard stories from John’s gospel that involve Jesus encountering another person in a significant way.  At the beginning of Lent, Jesus had his nighttime conversation with Nicodemus.  The following week, Jesus met and had a flirtatious conversation with a Samaritan woman.  And last week, Jesus healed a blind man, who proceeded to have a protracted dispute with the religious authorities.  It occurs to me that the theme running through all of these stories (apart from being very long and making us stand for long periods of time) is that these encounters with Jesus lead people to reevaluate the limited way they look at the world.  Nicodemus wonders why Jesus and the Pharisees seem to interpret Scripture in such different ways; Jesus encourages Nicodemus to change the way he understands his relationship with God.  The Samaritan woman lives in light of the shameful identity given to her by her community; Jesus tells her that the only identity she should focus on is her status as a child of God.  The man born blind is told by the religious authorities that his condition means that he is sinful; by giving this man sight, Jesus affirms that categories like “righteous” and “sinful” are far too simple to characterize the abundant love of God.  In these encounters, Jesus moves his hearers from rigidity to openness, from shame to acceptance, from simplicity to complexity, from limits to possibility.

And the encounter described in today’s reading from John’s gospel is also meant to encourage us to reevaluate how we look at the world.  You know this story well, because it is easily one of the most dramatic in the New Testament.  It’s no wonder that this story is a favorite of those who have chronicled the life of Jesus on film.  In several movies, the raising of Lazarus is the climactic end of the second act, the moment that demonstrates how important and powerful this Jesus really is.  In many ways, the story of Lazarus is the pivotal moment in John’s gospel.  Beginning in chapter twelve, Jesus begins to prepare his disciples for his death.  He and his disciples are no longer out in public, but are in houses and upper rooms.  And though John tells us that the authorities have tried to stone Jesus a handful of times in the previous chapters, it is after the raising of Lazarus that the authorities actually begin planning to execute Jesus.  This leads us to ask: what is so important about the raising of Lazarus?  What is it that changes after Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb?  What is it about this event that makes the authorities decide that Jesus is too dangerous to live?

On one hand, the answers to these questions seem pretty obvious.  After all, Jesus raised someone from the dead and demonstrated how powerful he really is.  Perhaps a lot of people heard about Jesus’ ability to raise the dead and decided to become his followers.  The authorities, in other words, were afraid of Jesus just like they would be afraid of any charismatic leader who bucks the status quo.  On the other hand, this answer seems a little simplistic.  Roman authorities were pretty good at quashing popular movements that questioned their power.  The idea that they would have been particularly worried about a Jewish rabbi, even one who could magically raise the dead, is fairly unlikely. There is a deeper reason for the apprehension of the authorities, and it is tied to the transformation that Jesus effects among the mourners gathered around the tomb of Lazarus.

Caravaggio's "Raising of Lazarus"
Caravaggio’s “Raising of Lazarus”

There are three moments in this story that we should pay attention to.  First, even before Jesus arrives at Bethany, there is an interesting exchange between Jesus and his disciples.  The disciples remind their teacher that the last time he was in Judea, the people there tried to kill him.  The implication of the disciples is clear: “You probably shouldn’t go, because you might end up dead. Worse still, we might wind up dead!”  Nevertheless, Jesus ignores the disciples’ fears, ignores the prospect of death, and travels to Bethany to meet his friend.  The second moment we need to consider occurs when Jesus arrives.  John tells us that Lazarus has been in the tomb for four days; he is, in other words, good and dead.  The dead man’s sisters accost Jesus, telling him that if he had been there, their brother wouldn’t have died.  In the same way, the crowds say, “This guy opened the eyes of the blind; certainly he could have restored Lazarus back to health, but here we are, mourning his death.”  In response to all of this, John tells us that Jesus is greatly disturbed and begins to weep.  The crowds assume that he is weeping for his friend, but it is pretty clear that Jesus is weeping for the people around the tomb, the people who are completely paralyzed by the death of Lazarus.  Finally, notice that the climax of this story is not when Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb; rather, it is when Jesus tells the startled onlookers to “Unbind him, and let him go.”

These three moments in the story of Lazarus point to a meaning that goes beyond its surface. Sure, this is certainly a miraculous account of someone being raised from the dead, but there is far more to this story.  Throughout most of John’s account, the people surrounding Jesus are paralyzed by their fear of death: the disciples don’t want to go to Judea because they are afraid they might die, Mary and Martha tell Jesus that he could have prevented Lazarus from dying if he had just been there, and the crowds are lingering around the tomb even four days after Lazarus’ funeral.  For the most part, Jesus does not react to the fact that Lazarus has died; instead, he reacts to the fear of death exhibited by the people around him.  He goes to Bethany in spite of the disciples’ warning, he tells Martha to trust even in the face of uncertainty, and he weeps because the crowds are imprisoned by their fear of death.  And so, in the climactic moment of the story, Jesus tells the crowds around the tomb to unbind Lazarus, to free him from the prison of death, and by doing so he invites the people gathered around him to free themselves from fear, to let themselves be unbound from the specter of death.  In his encounter with Lazarus, Jesus moves those around him not from sorrow to happiness, not from despair to hope, not even from death to life, but from fear to fearlessness.

Ultimately, this is why the raising of Lazarus impels the authorities to execute Jesus.  As far as they’re concerned, the only unassailable power that tyrants have is the power to take people’s lives.  This is why the preferred method of execution in the Roman Empire was crucifixion: by executing dissidents in a public and humiliating way, the Roman occupiers instilled fear among those who might want to rebel.  But when Jesus comes along and liberates people from the fear of death, those in power are suddenly impotent; without the fear of death, tyrants have no power to control people.  By freeing people from their prisons of fear, Jesus instilled fear among the authorities of this world, demonstrating to them that their power is ultimately fleeting and is coming to an end.  By raising Lazarus from the dead and then going willingly to the cross, Jesus demonstrates to us that we have nothing to fear, that when we ground our lives in God, we are not enslaved to limits, but are empowered to embrace possibility.

There are many times in our lives that we are imprisoned by fear.  Sometimes, we are afraid to try new things because we’re worried that we might fail.  Sometimes, we are afraid to reach out to someone we’ve never met because we’re afraid we might be embarrassed.  Sometimes, we’re willing to arm ourselves behind locked doors because of some vague fear of the unknown.  But by raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus reveals to us that our lives are not shaped by success or failure.  By raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus invites us to risk ourselves and be in relationship with those who are different than we are.  By raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus shows us that we have nothing to fear.  In these final weeks of Lent, I encourage you to embrace this fearlessness, to turn away from perceived limits, and to acknowledge that anything is possible.

Fearless

Note: During the season of Lent, I will be publishing a devotional on this blog titled “Surprised by Grace,” in which I will write about my efforts to look for grace in unexpected places.

ASH WEDNESDAYToday, I told a bunch of people that they were going to die.  I wasn’t nasty about it; in fact, most of them we eager to hear the reminder.  I told older people who have been struggling with cancer, younger people who have recently lost their parents, and little children who barely understand what death is.  This is, of course, the Church’s custom on Ash Wednesday, a day when we are reminded of our mortality and our complete dependence on God’s grace.

There is unexpected grace in this reminder of our mortal nature, because just after we are told that we are going to die, we are invited to go out and live.  More importantly, we are invited to go out and live with the understanding that we will someday die.  There is no way of getting around it.  While this may seem depressing, it is actually intended to be empowering.  If we live our lives with an awareness of our mortality, all of our ultimately futile efforts to preserve our lives become silly. This is the genesis of Jesus’ admonition in Matthew’s gospel: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  Our cultural preoccupation with wealth and security, our willingness to do anything to protect what we own crumbles in the face of the undeniable reality that our lives will someday end.

When we embrace this fundamental truth, it becomes clear that there is nothing of which we have to be afraid.  If we go through life with an awareness of our mortal nature, we are liberated to try new things, to care for people who cannot provide us with anything, to risk being embarrassed or hurt.  In other words, when we embrace our mortal nature,  we no longer have to fear failure.  In so many ways, this is what characterized the ministry of Jesus.  He refused to worry about what people thought about the fact that he ate with tax collectors and sinners.  He refused to be intimidated by touching someone with leprosy.  He refused to run away when it became clear that his ministry would end in death.  Jesus refused to fear failure.  During this season of Lent, I invite you to try new things, take risks, and embrace the fundamental truth that, by God’s grace, we have nothing to fear.

Wonderland

Sermon on Matthew 17:1-9 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, TX.

Though there’s nothing terribly impressive about the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, there is one thing about it that is almost impossibly romantic.  You may be wondering how there can be romance in a mass transit system; I will explain.  You see, the T, as it’s known, is comprised of five different lines, each designated by a different color: red, orange, green, silver, and blue.  On four of these lines, the names of the stops are fairly straightforward: they describe the location above drily and accurately.  On the blue line, however, the names of the stops are imbued with a romance that is unparalleled in any of the country’s other mass transit systems. From the jauntily nautical “Aquarium” to the pastoral sounding “Wood Island” to the impossibly exotic “Orient Heights,” the names of the blue line stops bring to mind images far more beguiling than the world we typically inhabit. Appropriately, the most romantic name of all is reserved for the end of the line: “Wonderland.”  The very thought of that name invites the rider of the blue line into a reverie of possibility and beauty, into a world that far exceeds our limited imagination.

Now, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that Aquarium is not actually filled with giant fish, Wood Island is not a primeval forest sprouting from the middle of the sea, and Orient Heights is not filled with pagodas and rickshaws.  And while one knows intellectually that these stops could not possibly live up to the romance of their names, it is still incredibly dispiriting to discover that they are like any other place.  All of these stops are disappointingly mundane, featuring the same shops, same people, and same challenges that characterize the rest of Boston and the rest of the world.  imagesMost disappointing of all is Wonderland.  Though the name evokes images that transcend even our wildest imaginations, Wonderland is, in fact, home to a run-down amusement park and a dog track. When one emerges from the depths of Wonderland station, there is a moment of spirit crushing self-realization as one thinks, “Is that it?  Is that all it is?”  It is one of those disappointments that makes you want to go back in time and pretend you don’t know what you know, to remain on the subway car and dwell in the safety of your imagination rather than face the cold certainty of reality.

Today we celebrate the Transfiguration, the commemoration of the time Jesus took Peter and James and John up a mountain, was physically transformed in front of them, talked with Moses and Elijah, and then returned down the mountain as if nothing happened.  It’s one of the stranger moments in the gospel account, not because God’s presence is made manifest to mortals (that actually happens with some frequency in Scripture), but because it has so little to do with the rest of the story.  The Transfiguration is an event that takes place in nearly all the gospel accounts, and in none of them does it seem to be a terribly important part of the narrative.  This is strange, because these moments when God is made manifest to mortals, known as theophanies, are usually hinge points in the lives of those who have these experiences.  After Moses experiences God in the burning bush, he embraces his responsibility to lead his people out of Egypt.  After Elijah experiences God in the still small voice on the top of Mount Horeb, he sets off to find the remnant that had not bowed the knee to Baal.  After Jesus experiences God during his baptism in the Jordan, he enters the wilderness to begin forty days of fasting, prayer, and discernment.  Theophanies are typically moments of transformation, so it is strange that not much seems to change in the lives of Peter, James, John, or even Jesus after the Transfiguration.  In the very next passage, we find the disciples complaining that they are unable to cast out a demon, which is what we have come to expect from the often-clueless disciples; nothing seems to have changed.  This is made all the more confusing by the fact that the word we translate as “transfiguration” is literally “metamorphosis.”  The whole story seems to hinge on this notion of change, and yet we are told that things have quite deliberately remained the same; Jesus even tells the disciples not to say anything about what happened.  The Transfiguration is a deeply perplexing moment in the life of our Lord: Jesus is literally transformed in front of his closest disciples and yet doesn’t seem to want anyone or anything changed as a result.

Why is this?  Why would Jesus, who is so utterly focused on conversion and amendment of life, be so uninterested in the transformative effects of arguably the most dramatic moment of transformation in his life and ministry?  It might be helpful for us to consider the story from Exodus we heard this morning.  The echoes between the story of the Transfiguration and the story of Moses ascending the mountain to receive the tablets of the Law are obvious.  In both cases, people are enshrouded by cloud on a mountaintop.  In both cases, Moses figures prominently.  And in both cases, mortals encounter and experience the living God.  There is one distinction, however, that seems to be of particular significance.  In the reading from Exodus, notice how many times we hear that people had to wait.  God tells Moses to wait, Moses and Joshua tell the elders of the people to wait, Moses waited six days before he ascended the mountain, and the people of Israel waited as Moses remained on the mountaintop for forty days and forty nights.  All of this waiting serves to underscore the significance of what was happening on the mountain.  The waiting allowed Moses and the people of Israel to anticipate what was coming.  The waiting represented a time of expectancy and hope, an awareness that this encounter with God, that this moment on the mountain was going to change everything.

We can actually see Peter exhibiting this familiar sense of anticipation and expectancy in Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration.  As soon as Moses and Elijah appear, Peter seems to recognize it as a theophany, a moment when he will encounter the living God, and he makes appropriate plans: “Moses is here?  That must mean we’re doing Exodus all over again!  We may be here forty days!”  His exuberant reverie is interrupted, however, by a voice from heaven that says, “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased: listen to him.”  After falling on the ground (which is the appropriate and expected response to hearing the voice of the Lord), Jesus taps Peter on the shoulder, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”  I can’t help but notice that at the first opportunity the disciples have to listen to Jesus, to obey the command of the very living God, Jesus gives them the surprisingly mundane instruction to “get up.”  Immediately after that, he tells them to keep their mouths shut about the events that have transpired.  Surely Jesus could have used the opportunity to impart some timeless spiritual truth or to issue some complicated command.  After all, the disciples were probably more than ready to listen after God himself told them to do so.  Instead, Jesus uses his newly imparted authority to get the disciples off the mountain, to point them away from the theophany, to point them towards the next steps of their journey.

In many ways, it’s not at all surprising that Peter wanted to linger on the mountain.  After all, just prior to the Transfiguration, Jesus informed his disciples that he would undergo great suffering and be crucified at the hands of the authorities.  imgresJust before his Transfiguration, Jesus had just made it abundantly clear that his glory would be revealed in the agony and humiliation of the cross.  So when Peter saw Jesus’ glorious transformation on the mountaintop, perhaps he wondered if another way was possible.  Perhaps he wondered if Jesus could bypass the cross by revealing his glory surrounded by cloud and situated between the symbolic arbiters of the Law and the prophets.  It seems that Peter wanted to stay on the mountain because he was afraid of what waited for him at its base.  It seems that Peter wanted to maintain his illusions about Wonderland and ignore its cold reality.  I think that all of us can sympathize with Peter.  All of us know what it feels like to put our efforts into hiding ourselves from the frightening realities of the world.  All of us know what it feels like to spend our time worrying about risk rather than trusting in possibility.  All of us know what it feels like to live lives shaped not by hope, but fear.  But by taking hold of Peter and telling him to “get up,” Jesus tells us that the glory revealed on the mountaintop is fleeting, but the true depth of God’s glory is revealed on the cross.  By taking hold of Peter and telling him to “get up,” Jesus tells us that true transformation does not occur through cosmic special effects, but through God’s self-emptying love. By taking hold of Peter and telling him to “get up,” Jesus tells us that true theophanies occur not only on the mountaintop, but also on street corners and at homeless shelters, at rundown amusement parks and dog tracks, at places called the Skull.  By taking hold of Peter and telling him to “get up,” Jesus is telling us that we experience the way of life and peace not by dwelling in the safety of our limited imaginations, but by sacrificially risking ourselves in love for others and by refusing to be afraid of failure.

We are about to embark upon the season of Lent.  More than anything else, Lent is an opportunity for us to take those risks to which Jesus invites us as he tells us to “get up.”  It’s an opportunity for us to get out of our comfort zones, to step down from our hiding places on the mountaintop and encounter God in a new and perhaps surprising way.  It’s easy to slip into the fallacy that the season of Lent is a reset button for our New Year’s resolutions or a “spiritual Olympics” when we prove just how holy we are.  But attitudes like this miss the challenging beauty of this season.  At its best, Lent is about disturbing us in our complacency and impelling us to meet God in the unvarnished reality and brokenness of the world.  As we descend from the mountaintop and enter the holy season of penitence and renewal, I pray that all of us will have the grace to see Lent as an opportunity to embrace the hard realities of this world and experience the God who far exceeds our limited imagination.