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.

Nostalgia

Sermon on John 20:19-31 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest on Sunday, April 7, 2013.

My favorite part of the house I grew up in is the second floor hallway.  The walls of this hallway are completely covered in photographs: ornately framed pictures of milestones like weddings, births, and baptisms from many generations and simply framed photographs of more mundane events like pool parties, Little League games, and dinners with old friends.  I think that my favorite photograph on the wall, however, is a grainy image of my great grandmother when she is in her late seventies.  In the photo she is wearing a carefully tailored dress with a subtle print and her silvery white hair is drawn into an elegant bun.  At the same time, the photo captures this tiny woman heaving a basketball at a backboard with all of her might.  In the picture, the ball is hovering a foot or so from her outstretched hands and she has a look of pure joy on her face.  I love this photograph because it shows a side of my great grandmother that I never knew.  By the time I was old enough to remember her, my great grandmother had had a stroke and could no longer talk very clearly.  During the final years of her life, she was essentially confined to a high-backed chair in her living room, having lost the youthful exuberance she exhibited that day she decided to shoot a basketball.  This photograph that hangs in my parents’ house, then, is a reminder of who my grandmother once was, a reminder of the exuberance and energy she once had, and it always makes me a little nostalgic.  It makes me want to go back to the way things were, back to a time when my great grandmother could talk coherently and move around and presumably play power forward for the Dallas Mavericks.  The thing is, this photograph makes me nostalgic for a person I didn’t really know.  It makes me nostalgic for a situation that might have been completely unique (after all, I don’t know of any other time that my great grandmother played basketball).  It makes me want to go back to a time that may never have existed.  This is the tricky thing about nostalgia; sometimes we want to go back to a past that we have completely imagined.

350px-Caravaggio_-_The_Incredulity_of_Saint_ThomasThis dynamic is at play in our gospel reading for today.  Generally, when we read this story from John’s gospel, we focus completely on Thomas.  We read it as a warrant for the bodily resurrection of Jesus, as a way to prove that Jesus rose from the dead.  We hold up Thomas as an example of either healthy curiosity or hardheaded skepticism.  We point out that Thomas has a change of heart when the resurrected Lord presents himself to the uncertain disciple: Thomas goes from saying “I won’t believe unless…” to “My Lord and my God.”  This is a perfectly appropriate way to approach this familiar story, but this interpretation ignores the vast majority of the people involved.  When Jesus first appears, he appears to the rest of the disciples.  It is what happens when Jesus appears to the rest of the disciples that is crucial for us as we strive to understand the meaning of Christ’s resurrection.

It’s important for us to remember where this story takes place in John’s gospel.  We always read this story of Jesus appearing to the disciples the week after Easter, and I think this deceives us into thinking that a significant period of time has elapsed since Peter and the other disciple discovered that the tomb was empty.  But this is the very same day.  Instead of going out and proclaiming that Jesus, who had been crucified, was no longer in the tomb, that he had been raised from the dead just as he promised, the disciples were hiding in the same room where they had met before Jesus had been betrayed.  They went back to where they started, because they weren’t sure what to do.  Naturally, they were frightened, and confused, and apprehensive; no doubt they had heard Mary Magdalene’s story of seeing the risen Jesus in the garden and they weren’t sure what to make of it.  In their haze of confusion and grief, they returned to that place where Jesus had explained everything, where he had had all the answers, and they locked the door.  The disciples did what so many of us do when faced with uncertainty; they returned to a familiar but imagined past, comforting themselves in the uneasy certainty of nostalgia.

John tells us that while the disciples were locked in their nostalgic fortress, Jesus appeared among them in the evening on the first day of the week.  Most translations don’t get this exactly right; in Greek, “on the first day of the week” is actually “on the eighth day.”  Now we all know that according to Genesis, God created the world in seven days, and so seven days is the normal pattern of creation.  The way that Jewish calendar was structured was based on a seven day cycle, which is why our calendar is based on a seven day cycle; when we get to seven we go right back to one.  But John signals to us that something entirely new has happened on this day, on this eighth day when Jesus Christ rose from the dead.  When John uses this phrase, we get the sense that there is something brand new and unprecedented happening, that a new creation has been inaugurated by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  On the eighth day, Jesus shows up among the disciples, who are clinging to what they had known before, who are holding fast to their understanding of the old creation with its uncertainty and violence and degradation and Jesus informs them that all of that is passing away by saying, “Peace be with you.”  This is not the mere absence of conflict; this is a deep and abiding peace, a peace that the world cannot give, a peace that passes understanding, a peace that proclaims the reality of the resurrection and transforms the world.  Jesus then sends his disciples.  The resurrection is not a private event that is to be shared only among Jesus’ closest associates; it is meant to change the world.  The presence of Jesus among his disciples informs them that the old ways of doing things are passing away and that a new creation is coming into being.  Jesus sends his disciples out into the world so that they can live new lives of transformation and change the world in the shadow of the resurrection.

And yet a week later, a week after the eighth day, a week after the disciples had been given that peace which the world cannot give, a week after Jesus had commissioned them, a week after the resurrection, they’re back where they started, back in the upper room with the door locked.  Were they not listening?  Were they not paying attention?  The resurrection of Jesus meant that everything had changed and the disciples went along nostalgically pretending that nothing had changed at all.  They were in the same place doing the same things.  No wonder Thomas doubted!  The most important event in the history of the world had happened and the disciples acted as if it were business as usual.  They wanted to go back to the way things were and pretend that the world had not changed forever.  But Jesus returns, poised to commission the disciples, poised to send them out to proclaim the transformative power of the resurrection, no matter how long it took.  Jesus returns to shake them from their nostalgic devotion to the past and remind them that God has done and is doing a new thing through the resurrection.

We have just concluded that season of self-denial and fasting known as Lent.  And let me tell you, there are few things that the Episcopal Church does better than Lent.  We’ve got incredible liturgies, engaging educational programs, and glorious music.  We all work a little harder, sit up a little straighter, and pray a little longer.  We expend so much energy working on our personal holiness that by the time Easter rolls around, we are all completely exhausted.  After the marathon that is Holy Week, the most that some of us can do is say, “The Lord is risen indeed” and then take a long eighth day nap.  Gradually, we go back to the way things were before Lent: we spend less time in prayer, we are less focused on how we use our time, and we once again neglect our relationship with God.  In some ways this is understandable; it’s difficult to maintain Lenten intensity 365 days a year.  And yet, it’s important for us to remember that all the things we do during Lent, all of the prayer and discipline and intentionality are meant prepare us for something.  imagesEaster Day is not meant to be a finish line at the end of a marathon; it is meant to be a launch pad, an opportunity to do something completely new. After all, while Lent only has forty days, Easter has fifty!  The season of Easter is meant to be a time when we proclaim the resurrection with our whole beings, when we live transformed lives that are a part of the new creation that God inaugurated on the eighth day.  And so during this season of transformation and resurrection, I invite you to discern how you might live this resurrection life and how you might make the resurrection known to others.  Can you volunteer to drive for Meals on Wheels or to cook for Breakfast on Beech Street or to be a mentor to a local student in need of guidance?  Can you visit an elderly relative in their home or call your mother every day or write a note to a friend you haven’t seen in a long time?  Can you think of ways that we as a church community can make the new creation a reality right here in Abilene?  We must not be tempted to return to those familiar and nostalgic places, to those upper rooms in our lives where we can lock the door against a changing world; we must be willing to live lives transformed by the resurrection, and we must obey Christ’s call to proclaim that God has brought about a new creation in Jesus Christ.