|Banner from L.O.G. #33|
Sermon by Katie Mulligan
Sunday, February 19, 2012
Delivered at First United Methodist Church
You don’t know me from anyone, so I thought I’d take a minute to tell you a few things about myself before diving in to moralizing through scripture. A few weeks ago I preached at a Baptist church and neglected to say anything about who I am before offering a sermon on the Lost Coin. As I stumbled through the unfamiliar liturgy, leaving out hymns and tripping over the altar call, what they probably figured out best is that I am not a Baptist. So I will tell you right now that I am not a Methodist either. I am a Presbyterian, and I came to God and the church as a teenager. I arrived on God’s doorstep at age 13 when my family blew up with sorrow and rage in the way that families often do. The youth pastor at a Presbyterian church had said once, “If anyone ever needs to talk after school, I’m around in my office.” So I took him up on it, and dumped my story in his lap. He offered me cheezits and some time to talk. 25 years later I am still here and still grateful for that community of faith.
I am the mother of two boys, each with unique challenges. Their father lives nearby and co-parents with me; I am lucky in that. I have three cats, and I expect that someday I will have more—a friend tells me that the threshold is 10 cats, and after that you become The Cat Lady. I aspire to that, but perhaps my landlord does not. I am a preacher in between calls, which is a fancy way of saying I don’t have a regular gig. I am a writer, reflecting often on scripture and how that connects with concerns about race, sexuality, gender, and love. I am learning to cook. After twenty years of thinking about it, I am learning to play guitar. I am a social media fanatic—you can find me most days on twitter and facebook, where I have gathered about me a wonderful community of people from all over. That is how I met my friend the right Rev. Will Humes. All’s that to say, I have a fairly ordinary life with ordinary concerns. And today’s scripture is exactly about that: holiness in the midst of ordinariness.
The story begins with the words “Six days later,” and when I began to work with this passage my first thought was, “Six days after what?” Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter, James and James’ brother, John, and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. What were they doing six days before? So I flipped back a chapter to see.
A week or so before Jesus took his disciples up to the mountain top, Jesus had fed four thousand people crowded on a hillside. The people had gathered to hear him speak and brought their loved ones for healing. They had not thought to bring food, and so Jesus fed them, with seven loaves of bread and a few small fish. After making plenty out of scarcity, Jesus sent away the crowds and wandered off again, alone in a boat. The local religious leaders came to meet Jesus, asking for a sign from heaven. It seems that the miraculous healings and the feeding of four thousand people from a nearly empty bread basket was not enough, so Jesus turned them away saying, “you know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.” Or in other words: you can figure out tomorrow’s weather just looking at the sky, but you see all that I am doing and cannot put together who I am.” So he left the religious leaders too, and met up with his disciples on the other side of the sea.
When he joined the disciples, Jesus discovered that they had forgotten to bring any bread to eat, and he sharply reprimanded them. He was not concerned that they had forgotten bread—he was more concerned that they had forgotten that he could make do without bread. He was annoyed that the disciples too could not read the signs right in front of them. And so he called out to them, “Who do people say that I am?” “Elijah, John the Baptist, Jeremiah, a prophet,” they answered. And then he asked, “But who do YOU say that I am?” Simon Peter blurted out, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus blessed him and praised him, “I will build my church upon you Peter, the Rock. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven!”
But of course this is the disciple Peter, and so within one paragraph he’d messed things up. As Jesus began to tell his disciples once again that he would suffer and be killed by the religious leaders (and on the third day be raised), Peter cried out, “God forbid it Lord! This must never happen to you!” Jesus said, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me.” The ups and downs and all arounds of ordinary, daily life with Jesus.
So it was six days after THAT. Six days after Jesus had fed and healed four thousand people. Six days after the religious leaders tested his patience with a further request for signs from heaven. Six days after the disciples fretted about bread again. Six days after Peter had precisely answered the question of who Jesus was. And six days after Peter incurred Jesus’ wrath for trying to protect this man he followed and dearly loved.
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter, James, and James’ brother, John, and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. As the three of them stood there and watched, Jesus transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun. His clothes turned bright white. And suddenly before them appeared Moses and Elijah. Talk about signs! There they were on a mountaintop, watching their master glow, chatting away with Moses and Elijah—those long dead heroes of the Hebrew Scriptures. Overcome with awe? Joy? Passion? Peter said, “It is good to be here! I can make three little huts for you and Elijah and Moses!” I imagine Peter thought they might stay a while. This man he loved and followed could stay on the mountaintop, away from the cities, away from the religious leaders, away from the destiny of suffering and death that lay before him. They could stay a while and it would be good. Peter would build three little huts.
Suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them. The cloud spoke! “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the cloud spoke, Peter and James and John fell to the ground—as well one might! They trembled in fear, but Jesus touched them and said, “Get up and do not be afraid.” When they got up, there was only Jesus. The cloud had dispersed, Moses and Elijah were gone, and Jesus no longer glowed. There they were, just four guys on a mountain, and as they walked down, Jesus said, “Don’t tell anybody until after I am dead and raised again.” As he continued to answer their questions they understood that John the Baptist had perhaps been the return of Elijah, and that this generation had missed the sign. They understood just a little bit more of what Jesus was to suffer.
When they got to the bottom of the mountain they met up again with the crowd, and immediately one of the crowd asked him for healing, the religious leaders resumed testing him, and Jesus carried on with his work of teaching the disciples.
Such a magnificent mountain experience, sandwiched between miracles and healing and responding to skeptics. Sandwiched between teaching disciples who sometimes understood and sometimes missed the message entirely. Sandwiched between crowds pressing in on him with their needs, wants, demands. Sandwiched between feeding people abundantly out of scarcity. The signs from heaven were all about in Jesus’ daily work and life, but even the transfiguration on the mountaintop—as blatant a sign as that was—even that was difficult for Peter to grasp. His first thought as he witnessed this grand vision was, “Oh let’s stay here a while.” And yet Jesus' abiding message from the start of his ministry to the end, was that there was work to do to bring about the kingdom of heaven. While there were many short pauses along the way, Jesus’ path (and the disciples’ too) led inexorably and quickly toward a particular incarnation of God’s will: the cross.
Pause a moment and picture a mountaintop experience in your life. Perhaps it was a retreat. Perhaps it was a morning cup of coffee and the peace of Christ overwhelmed you. Maybe your children giggled in just such a way that it was like angels playing. Or you sat with someone in their death and felt their spirit as it moved away from this world. Perhaps a moment of deepest grief when you were comforted, or a moment of greatest joy when all seemed right. Maybe you were in love, and the clearest sign of Christ’s movement in this world came from a single rose conjured at the right most beautiful moment.
Or perhaps you have never had a mountaintop experience. I’ll remind you that Jesus also said, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet still believe.” (John 20:29) For those of you who have never experienced God’s presence in a tangible, palpable way, I’ll remind you that there were nine disciples who Jesus did NOT take up that mountain. Nine disciples who did NOT witness the transfiguration, and yet still continued with Jesus’ work anyway. Nine disciples who did NOT see Elijah and Moses nor hear the cloud speak, and yet still believed. Our mountaintop experiences matter—they are a source of great joy for many people—but from our story today we can see that at least one message we are to take away from those mountaintop experiences is “Get back to work. There are things to be done.”
I worked for several years as the director of youth ministry at Goleta Presbyterian Church in California. It was a wonderful church of about 200 people, and they have maintained a long tradition of supporting youth ministry. For many years, as long as they could afford it, they had a dedicated pastor for youth ministry. Before and after that was possible they have had staff dedicated to youth ministry, and many volunteers who gather around the youth of that church and community to tell them that Jesus loves them. And to tell them that the church loves them. They gather around the youth to say that in a time of scarcity—when it feels like there isn’t much out there that is good and beautiful—that there is abundance and joy to be found in this life. Whatever else the church does as a congregation, they tell the youth of abundance and joy. This is the work they do, and I thank God for them. I was at one time one of those youth. And then at another time I was one of the adults. We are taught and then we teach; this is the work of the church.
Since 1989, Goleta Presbyterian Church has hosted a student-led youth retreat called Love of God. (Information about L.O.G. in South Bend, IN can be found here). Twice a year they take 50-80 students up the mountain to a rustic camp where they sing and pray and eat and talk and worship and laugh from Friday night until Sunday night. The students arrive Friday night—some of them know each other, but many of the first timers only know the person who invited them. The team pulls everybody together with games and conversations and introductions on Friday night until at bedtime they have formed some kind of tenuous community. On Saturday begins the work of getting to know one another, falling in love with Christ and those who bear his image, caring for one another as they listen to each other’s life stories. They share, they play, they learn. They learn especially about how to love in a world that doesn’t love very well. There is plenty of laughter and plenty of tears. After sharing deeply (if they choose) in the afternoon, the students worship together and feast into the night. They gather as a community to be a sign for one another of the coming kingdom of God, and then they crash into sleep after a long day of holding that sacred space open for one another and for the Spirit.
On Sunday begins the more difficult work of preparing to go home. After three days of being apart from their everyday contexts, temporarily freed from the obstacles that get in the way of God and love, the students (and adults) begin to speak of what they have found in this community set apart and how they might take it home to make a new creation of the spaces and families they inhabit. They have a seen a transfiguration of sorts. A cloud sometimes speaks. The Spirit flows freely in that space. But the question is, “Now what?” How does one go on in everyday life when one has seen or felt the presence of God. What does one do with such a sign if one indeed has recognized it?
The students I worked with came from 17 churches about town—Presbyterian, Baptist, Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, Non-denominational. Some of them came from no church at all. They came from five different high schools across town, public and private. They were nerds and cheerleaders, and drama geeks, and machine shop kids. They didn’t all like each other normally. At L.O.G. we deliberately loosened those social restrictions and made space for the cheerleader and geek to know and care for one another deeply. But everyday, at school, at home, on the street—IN PUBLIC? That took more effort.
I used to hear from some students that they didn’t want to come back to L.O.G. because L.O.G. people were just hypocrites—acting one way at the weekend and a totally different way in everyday life. I get that. It’s disappointing when people (when I) do that. But what I think is most true is that in this space we deliberately created to be open to the Spirit, people were the best of themselves. They were changed by the presence of God and God’s love could shine through in that space clearly. Some of the students used to say, “I wish we could just live at L.O.G. Why can’t we do that? I wish it was more than just 6 total days a year.” Like Peter, they were willing to build some huts and stay a while. Heck, I was willing to build some huts and stay a while. Most of my job consisted of “how do I take this L.O.G. experience and keep it going all year with these students.” We actually DID make little huts at L.O.G. We started the weekend with a rustic, dusty, sparsely decorated camp, and we created a rich, lush retreat space with rugs, tapestries, couches, and a thousand little props that became part of our sacred space (it was a tabernacle, really). But we probably missed the point entirely: you can’t stay on the mountaintop. Even Moses only got 40 days and nights. There’s work to be done and not enough people to do it. There are people to love, and not enough people who love in this world. We are led inexorably and immediately toward the cross in this life. There are pockets of joy and rest to be found, but much of what we do is everyday work. Everyday sorrow. Everyday difficulties that are hard to bear.
It is never easy to translate those mountaintop experiences into our everyday lives. It is never easy to take what we have learned in holy spaces and cram that back into our ordinary contexts. It is never easy to come down the mountain and get back to work. And yet that’s what we are called to do. We become a new creation, but most of us are stuck in old wineskins (apologies for the haphazardly mixed scriptural metaphors). The call of Christ is “You have seen, now get back to work. You have learned, now teach. You have been changed and healed—offer what you have found to others. Get back to work.”
The Transfiguration functions for us as a sign and a reminder of God’s tangible presence in this everyday world. Jesus said to his disciples, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” We must not forget that the Son of Man has indeed been raised from the dead, and that our call now is to tell everybody. Get up out of these holy spaces and get back to work—the work of healing and loving and changing.
What does this look like? What kind of work do I speak of? Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick, comforting those who mourn, visiting those in prison. We are called to material and tangible ministries in this world—tending to fleshy humans in all their complicatedness. We long to dwell in God’s presence, but we are sent out to move in spaces that do not welcome God. We long for long days of peace and joy, but we are sent out into difficulty and sorrow. We are sent out risk, to be different, to challenge our own assumptions, to do what is just and compassionate.
We come on Sundays to a place of worship. We come here for spiritual nourishment, to share in communion, to chat over coffee. We come to sing our praises to the Lord, and we lay our offerings of time and talent and service on the altar next to our prayers and petitions. We come into church on Sundays to be part of a community of faith, to seek a closer walk with God. And then we leave this place, and go back to families, friends, work spaces, schools, committee meetings, car repairs, the dentist’s office, to feed and walk the dog. We leave this extraordinary space carved out of space and time for an hour or two every Sunday, and we cram ourselves back into ordinary space and time. And Christ calls out to us time and again, “Get back to work.”
Listen. One of my twitter people, @sassycrass, tweeted about her bus commute the other day. Seven white people got on at one stop. There were two open seats next to other white people and all seven of them ran for those two seats. There were plenty of open seats next to people of color, and two of the white folks sat down with obvious reluctance. The other three stood, refusing to sit next to people of color. After tweeting her story others chimed in with similar experiences from across the country. Get back to work, Jesus said. Those seven people could easily have been us here in this church. Get back to work on bringing justice and love to our everyday lives. Healing, teaching, loving, spending time. Get back to work outside of the church and work on the racism and bigotry that so permeates our lives that we are willing to treat others as subhuman rather than face the ugliness that lies in our souls. Get back to work.
So how will you get back to work this week is the question. Will you work toward eradicating the racism that plagues our society? Will you offer friendship to our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender kindred (many of whom are also Christians!)? Will you acknowledge that queer folk are already here, in the pews? Will you go from here and be of service where you can? It doesn’t take much—I have a friend who is housebound. She cannot march in rallies or visit the sick—she IS the sick. But everyday she gets on her facebook and sends a note of encouragement to one or two or twelve people who are marching or visiting or doing other work. I know people who knit prayer shawls. I know people who do their work through committees. I know dedicated souls who offer their bookkeeping and plumbing talents to help others. Everyday kindness. Everyday work. We aren’t Jesus, we’re not Elijah or Moses, we’re not even Peter. But we are heirs of a tradition that sees glorious signs on the mountaintop and then gets back to work to usher in the kingdom of heaven.
What work of love will you do this week?