Last night I went to bed early and set my alarm clock to allow me to sleep in a little. I had a sermon ready to go and so I assumed I would sleep well. After a very restless night I awoke convicted by the idea that I had prepared the wrong sermon. The events of the last two weeks, things I had read, conversations that I had participated in, all came together to help me to see that I needed to say something different about today’s Gospel reading. at the conclusion of the 8:00 service I knew that I had not quite gotten it right. It was coming together but wasn’t done yet. The sermon that follows is what I said at the 10:30, as best I could reconstruct it at 4:30 this afternoon when I finally got home.
This sermon draws on the Gospel reading for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany in year B of the Revised Common Lectionary, Mark 9:2-9.
You can find that reading here.
There is a link both within the text of the sermon and at the bottom of the page to the blog post that I quote.
You’ve got to love Peter. Of all of the disciples he is the one that we know the most about. Peter’s name gets mentioned more often than any of the other disciples. It is almost always Peter who is front and center, face to face with Jesus, right in the middle of the action. It was Peter, there in a boat so full of fish that it was beginning to sink, Peter whose mother in law was healed of a fever, Peter who names Jesus as the Son of God, Peter who said that he would follow Jesus anywhere, Peter who denies Jesus three times and Peter who, in the end, strips off his clothes, dives into the water and swims ashore to have breakfast with Jesus on the beach. Peter’s character is so well developed, he seems so human, and that humanity helps us to find ourselves in the biblical narrative, how could you not love him?
So this morning, as Peter stands there on the side of the mountain with James and John, and suddenly Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus in a blinding light that was unlike anything that he had ever seen, we find ourselves sympathetic and connected to the fear that he feels. After all, if Moses and Elijah, the two prophets who are central to the history and faith of the People of Israel have appeared then the world must be about to come to an end and the kingdom of God must be about to come to fruition at last. No wonder he is afraid. What will that look like? What will it mean? And so we are right there with him as he says, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
In this morning’s Gospel reading the response to Peter’s frantic and terrified response comes from God. God says, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Now I have to tell you that knowing what we know about Peter, his impetuous nature, and his proclivity for putting his foot in his mouth, I hear these words from God inflected a little differently than we just heard them read. Depending on the week I have had I either hear, “Oh come on Peter! This is my Son. Would you just stop talking for a minute and listen to what he is saying…?” or, I hear “Peter Shut up! This is my Son! Listen to him!” The funny thing is that Jesus hasn’t said anything yet! The text says that Jesus went up the mountain with Peter, James, and John and that he was transfigured before them. It doesn’t say that Jesus was in the middle of a sermon, that he was delivering a discourse, or that he was teaching. The text doesn’t tell us that Jesus was saying anything at all. In order to understand what God wanted Peter to listen to we have to back up in the story a little.
This morning’s Gospel reading begins with the second verse of the ninth chapter of Mark. In the middle of the eighth chapter we hear Peter’s famous confession. Jesus asks his disciples who they think he is and Peter says, “You are the Messiah.” Peter is the star pupil. He has finally gotten it right. But Jesus sternly orders his disciples not to tell anyone who he is and then begins to tell them that he must be crucified, die and be raised from the dead after three days! Peter interrupts him and says, “Wait a minute! That can’t happen to you! Don’t talk like that. You are the front-runner. We are ahead in the polls. If you keep talking likes this, going off message, you are going to ruin everything!” Jesus turns to Peter and calls him Satan. He reprimands Peter and tells him that he has his mind on earthly and not heavenly things. Peter has gone from being the star to being in the doghouse in just two short paragraphs. Then to make it even worse Jesus calls the crowds together with his disciples and says to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the Gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” Then the Gospel says, “Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves.”
Six whole days! For six days the disciples have been wrestling with what Jesus said. He has told them that following him is not about riding into Jerusalem to the cheers of the crowds. It is not about healing people of their diseases and working great signs and wonders. Jesus has told them that being his follower means living your life for others, working to be sure that the people around you have what they need to live whole and meaningful lives. Jesus has just told them that we need to recognize other people’s needs, wants, agendas and opinions as equal to our own, that life and the world are not just for and about us, but for all of God’s children… Six whole days they have had to struggle with this new ordering of reality and the world. I am sure that they were upset. I am sure that some of them were beginning to wonder if Jesus really was who Peter said he was. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them were ready to jump ship, to get out of the boat.
With all of that in mind it seems like Peter’s response might have sprung from a fear greater than what was inspired by the vision that he had been given. It must have seemed much more attractive to stay up there on the mountain with those three luminous figures of the Hebrew tradition. Going back down the mountain with Jesus’ identity confirmed by what he had just seen would mean a life lived for others, a life of service to the people around him, a sacrificial life spent holding up all of God’s children in ways that offered them the very gifts that he himself had received. The idea of building three booths, residences, shrines to this experience and staying there, in the rarefied air, so close to God that they might touch and be touched… that probably sounded much better than going back down the mountain and rejoining the fray.
But that is just the point. To be a follower of Jesus we have to go back down the mountain and be engaged with the world around us. We can’t just sit up here where the air is clear, the light is bright and our hopes and faith have been strengthened by the experiences, the revelations that we have been given. Peter, James and John had to go back into the world and actively participate in bringing the kingdom of God to fruition. To be a follower of Jesus they had to be “engaged.”
This week someone, a member of this congregation, sent me an email that included a blog post written by the pastor of a church here in Dane County. In this post he talks about a recent study that states “that in Dane County, fifty percent of ALL young African American men are either in prison, on probation or parole, or on extended supervision.” That is a number that should outrage each and every one of us! Right here in Madison where we are progressive, broad minded, and fair? How can this be? This pastor, The Rev. Dr. Alex Gee, Senior Pastor of Fountain of Life Church in Madison, goes on to describe being accosted in the parking lot of his own church, while dressed in a three piece suit, because he was there at night, in his car, in an otherwise empty parking lot! Really? Yes really! Right here in Madison we have homeless shelters that are filled to overflowing. We have people who do not have access to adequate health care. We have people who have to choose between buying food and buying their medications. All around us people are hurting, people are struggling, people are living without the things that they need to be whole, to be the people God calls us all to be, to experience the kingdom of God that is held out to us in a vision of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah on a mountaintop. And what is happening here is wrong!
Yes, I am talking politics here. Actually I have been talking politics all morning, I have just been using another word, a synonym for a word that we aren’t supposed to use in church. We are called to be “engaged” in the world around us. We are called to come down from the mountain, to reach beyond the walls of this church into the community and the world, and to live lives that reflect and imitate the life of the one we follow. Politics is just another word that means engagement with the people and the world around us. This morning God says to us, “This is my Son. I know it is hard but you must listen to Him!”
This morning, at the end of the Season of Epiphany I think that we are in great danger of succumbing to the temptation that afflicted Peter there on the mountain. Ever since Christmas we have been hearing about, and celebrating, God made tangible, real, manifest in the world through the person of Jesus Christ. For the last seven weeks we have been trying to attune our senses so that we can be aware of God moving and working in or own lives and in the lives of the people around us. The season of Epiphany is filled with stories of mountaintop experiences, the wonder of God revealed. Now we are being asked to leave that all behind, to come down from the mountain, and enter into the season of Lent, a season where we are called to look deep within ourselves to discover the places and ways that we keep the kingdom of God from coming to fruition, both in our own lives and in the lives of the communities we inhabit. We are called to engage in politics and to fight the institutions and assumptions, the beliefs and ways of being that allow half of all young African American men to be enmeshed by the corrections system, that allow people to sleep on the streets at night, and that deny people access to the basic services that they need to thrive and participate in the Kingdom of God.
We are also called to be engaged in the politics that operate here within our own church when we see that the things we do, say, or believe are inhibiting the coming of the kingdom for all of God’s children. There are members of the Episcopal Church who feel like lepers in their own community because they do not have access to the same sacraments that the rest of us do. They are not allowed the sacrament of marriage or ordination because of the way that God made them. This summer at our triennial General Convention we will be called to vote on a resolution that establishes a three year trial period for liturgies for the blessing of same sex unions. There are poeple in our church, right here in our parish family, who are praying that we will pass that resolution. I am too! We need to tell them that there are no lepers in this church! We are being called to engage the issues, the hurt, the pain, and the theology that swirl around this resolution. If we do not then we will have built ourselves a church on the mountain that has become an idol, a place where we have insulated ourselves from the world around us. If we do not engage then we will have chosen to ignore the moving of the Holy Spirit who is calling us to this work. We must be engaged.
Some people would tell us that church and politics don’t mix, that talking about issues like these jeopardize the Body of Christ by causing conflict and disagreement and it would surely be much easier to stay up here, in the rarefied air, so close to God that we can touch and be touched. It would be less risky to build three booths, residences, shrines, or even just a church and leave the mess of engagement, of politics, to the people who are still at the bottom of the hill. But the strength and power of the Anglican Ethos, of the Episcopal Ethos lies in our belief that the things that bind us one to another: the love of Christ, the creeds, and our common worship here at this rail, are far more important and powerful than the things that divide us. We are committed to finding our way forward together. We can talk about these things, we can be engaged, we can wrestle with the issues and with the politics and we can still come together and hold out our hands at this altar.
Jesus has told us that being his follower means living our lives for others, working to be sure that the people around us have what they need to live whole and meaningful lives. Jesus has just told us that we need to recognize other people’s needs, wants, agendas and opinions as equal to their own, that life and the world are not just for and about us, but for all of God’s children… And God says, “This is my Son! Listen to him.”
Voices We Need to Hear: Alex Gee, Senior Pastor of Fountain of Life Church