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Incremental Faith

I very much want to either force the entirety of my parish to watch all of The Good Place immediately, or else to speed up time so I can reasonably preach on the series finale without spoiling it.

However, the likelihood of either of these things happening is small. This is too bad, because The Good Place offers rich metaphors for our understanding of Scripture. (Peter is the Jason Mendoza of the disciples. I will brook no disagreement.)

I was pondering the finale (which is masterful) when I wrote this sermon but I haven’t spoiled anything. So if you haven’t seen this show yet, go directly to Netflix and fix your life.

Rev. Megan L. Castellan

February 23, 2020

Last Sunday before Lent, Year A

Matthew 17

—where do stories end?

—we want the work to be accomplished all at once, with a stunning climax.  Boom! 

—Usually, work of faith is slower, harder. We get moments of transfiguration, and then have to go back to the valley, and walk awkwardly to Jerusalem and die.

—Work of faith is in the day to day living.  In the minute decisions.  It’s a practice, not an accomplishment.

Welcome to the Last Sunday in Epiphany—a strange beast in several ways.  It’s the last day we can say Alleluia for a while.  It’s the last time we will break out the green hangings until the summer!  

And it is when we always read the story of the Transfiguration, even though we have a feast of that, and it is in August, not today.  

This Sunday is ever so slightly odd, and yet here it is.  In many ways, this Sunday appears to want to be the climax of the Jesus story—rather than a mid point.  

If this all were being scripted by Disney, if this were one of those movies where a ragtag gang of munchkins learn a sport and triumph at the last moment thanks to pluck and a great speech from the coach, then this would be the final scene.  Jesus has assembled a motley group of disciples from all over—tax collectors, rebels, disaffected layabouts, fishermen—and taught them for 3 years.  They have now started going out on their own, preaching and teaching, and they are finally figuring out who Jesus is maybe.

And now, Jesus goes up the mountain in Galilee, and is transfigured into the image of his glory in front of his disciples.  Their faith and hard work has paid off—now they can see that he is who they believed.  Miracle!  Wonderful!  You can hear the heavenly chorus singing in the background as the LITERAL heavenly chorus appears to chat with Jesus.

But then it’s over.  Then it disappears again.   The transfigured reality that the disciples saw for a moment isn’t the culmination of their work—it’s just a moment on the way,  It’s an interlude on the path to the cross, and resurrection.

You can sort of see the disciples’ disappointment at that.  They would like Transfigured Jesus to be permanent—to be the sort of conquering superhero that their world needs right now.  Perhaps that’s why Peter exclaims—“Oh great! We’ll build some booths so you guys can stick around!” Peter thinks this heralds the kingdom of God—that all the teaching and preaching up unit now was prelude, and here is God’s kingdom and it will be bright and shiny with dead guys floating in the sky!  Peter is HERE FOR IT.  This is it!  This is what they’ve been waiting for!

But then—  Moses and Elijah disappear.  Jesus is back to normal.  And they have to go back down the mountain.  The momentary flash of divine inspiration didn’t solve everything after all.  Jesus is still talking about dying in Jerusalem, the world is still a messy place.  The disciples aren’t getting a Disney ending.

Many of the narratives we tell ourselves about the world revolve around these Disney endings, or silver bullets.  If we could just figure out the right answer, everything would fall into place in a snap. If we could just say the right thing to the person we’re struggling with, everything would be all right.  If we could just do the right thing in this instance, then our issues would be permanently solved!

But this is not how the world works, Jesus reminds us.  Jesus appearing to the disciples in glory does not fix anything.  It’s almost a misdirect, because his real moment of glory is the resurrection after the ultimate shame and humiliation of the cross.  The disciples, in this moment, get what they were expecting—the triumphant king coming in glory, consulting with ancient sages and prophets, but discover that it does not, actually, accomplish what they thought it would.

Faith, after all, is not in single moments.  Faith is not worked out in a single moment of decision or in accomplishment where all becomes clear; faith is a daily practice of growing with God, on a moment by moment basis.  We do not participate in the work of God in one decisive action that sets right creation—we participate in the work of God through our daily efforts….and failures, and repentence, and then renewed efforts.  We participate through the mundane details of our lives, as Christ accompanies us in our living—not just in the moments out of time that transform us.  

Despite all our desire for the one big fix, the one deus ex machina moment that solves everything, and makes us perfect, life with Christ is incremental.  The disciples don’t get airlifted out of Galilee from that mountaintop—they have to go back down the hillside, in awkward silence, and face the events to come, and still make their hard choices.  Our baptismal faith is practiced one step at a time.  We figure one thing out only to be faced by another issue.  We work hard and solve one problem only to discover that it was covering up several more.  Victories, when they come, are often more transient than we would like, and try as we might, we do not seem to be able to pull everything together, even for a little while. 

But there is deep hope in having a faith predicated in a journey, over a magical mountaintop triumph.  Peter, James and John sort of whiffed their mountaintop response.  And the other disciples were left out.  But as the journey continues, they get more chances to respond to God’s presence.  To participate in what God is doing before their eyes.  And they manage to.

As Christians of the incremental journey, we need never fear that it’s too late for us, that we missed our mountaintop, or that we made the wrong decision and it’s all over for us now.  God is with us on this journey, offering us so many chances to participate, to try again, to recognize what’s before us.  Our walk with Christ doesn’t limit us to a single opportunity to do good, or join with God to find salvation—our walk with Christ offers us infinite opportunities to do that.  Over and over again.  

We can never fear that we have wandered too far astray or wasted too much time—God always walks beside us, and since that is true, we will always be on the path to redemption, we just have to realize it.  Christ always walks beside us, down the mountain, asking us to take this moment, and then, maybe this one.  But always, always, there’s another moment to come.  


About megancastellan

Episcopal priest, writer, wearer of fancy shoes.

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