Last week, before I left on retreat (Beautiful Authority Conference, which was amazing) I received in the mail a book from the President of the House of Deputies.
Tag Archives: adventures in postmodernism
Arizona has been a state for 100 years this month. And it seems that the state legislature is attempting to set some sort of record in their centennial year.
In seminary preaching class, we had an assignment towards the end of term. Thirty minutes before class, we were given a sealed envelope with a text in it, and a 3×5 card.
The assignment was to take the thirty minutes and come up with a 3-5 minute sermon based on the text given, and preach it in class. (I’d like to see you try this, Top Chef people.) The idea was that at some point in our lives, we would show up at church, all calm and happy, and be called upon to preach a sermon at the last minute. Best to start practicing now.
My text was from Ezekiel, where the prophet addresses the people of Israel in the voice of God and says “I shall be your God, and you shall be my people. And you shall be my people…” and something else happens in the verse, but all I could think of was Finding Nemo, and Dory speaking to the jellyfish: “I shall call you Squishy, and you shall be my Squishy!”
Free association in the postmodern age can be tricky. And not without a sense of humor.
But, since the relationship between God and God’s people is, in fact, not unlike that between Dory and the jellyfish, it worked out.
This week, I read the texts (Elijah/Elisha and Transfiguration!) and all I could think of was that scene from Rent with the angry homeless lady yelling at Mark.
Now, this could have been because some friends of mine had been discussing it on Twitter earlier in the month. Or it could be because God was messing with me.
Either way, each time I read Peter’s comment, and God’s comeback “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him!” I heard the Angry Woman singing in my head.
If you know Rent, you understand the tension here. Almost nothing in her scene is sermon-appropriate language. But I couldn’t find another illustration. Despite the fact that I was still really unclear why/how the Angry Homeless Woman was related to the Transfiguration, I decided to take a stab at it.
Here’s what happened.
February 19, 2012
7 Epiphany (Transfiguration), Year B
Mark 9: 2-9
In the musical RENT, a sort of modern read on La Boheme set in New York’s East Village, early in the narrative, the main starving-artist characters are hanging around a vacant lot late at night, observing a homeless woman being harassed by some cops. She hasn’t done anything wrong–they just want her to pull up her tent-city dwelling and head somewhere else for the night, when one of the ‘artists’ comes over with his handy-dandy video camera (This is all set in the late 1990s, so forgive the absence of cellphones).
Realizing he’s being caught on tape, the officer heads off, and Mark, with the camera, turns to the lady he’s just ‘rescued,’ clearly expecting to be gratefully thanked, when she instead starts cursing at him.
What, exactly, she screams at him is not church-appropriate language, so I shall heavily paraphrase.
Basically, she asks him who in the world he thinks he is, she didn’t need to be rescued in the first place, and she doesn’t exist just so he can make a new movie, or feel better about himself.
She stomps away.
See, this woman, She wanted to be engaged with.
She wanted to be listened to, not just seen, not just treated like a problem, or even a heroine. She wanted to be listened to.
Peter’s comment in the gospel today up on the mountain is a very human one. Very understandable response. He’s all confused, clearly, one minute he was out for a nice lesuirely stroll with his friends– the next, there’s a cloud, there’s a light, there’s visions of long dead prophets appearing. He’s having a bit of a day.
So he’s overcome. He’s blown out of the water by what he’s experiencing. And he seizes on the first thing that pops into his head which possibly has bypassed the filter between brain and mouth– I know none of you have ever done this.
He says– “lord! It is good we are here! Let us build three dwellings for you! One for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah!”
He doesn’t want to build mansions here– what he wants to build is more like tiny houses– or tabernacles. It’s a word in Greek that gets kicked around in the OT anytime the people of Israel are out wandering in the desert, and want to build a resting place for the Presence of God. It denotes something like a dwelling place , or a tent.
So Peter wants to build homes for Jesus , Moses and Elijah. He wants to keep them there. He wants to freeze the moment. The moment is so overwhelming, so wonderful and inspiring and awe-producing that he wants to freeze it and stay with it forever.
Leave Jesus and Moses and Elijah living up there on the mountain top forever like living museum pieces. Frozen. Waiting. Perfect and beautiful and lovely.
But Peter doesn’t get to do that because this voice comes from the heavens, and God says, “This is my Son. The Beloved. LISTEN TO HIM.”
I’d imagine it must be a pretty awesome experience for God to tell you to shut it, essentially, and that’s what happens to Peter.
Peter gets told, not to honor the stillness and perfection of what he saw, but to listen. To engage. To risk shattering the perfection of the image, and head back down the mountain.
Peter, really, I’m guessing, and most of us too, would have loved to stay up on the untainted mountaintop with those booths and Jesus, just hanging out, and staring. It would have been great. The Christ, with Moses, the giver of the law, and Elijah, the chief of the prophets, and you, to sit and absorb their wisdom, forever and ever, and just relish their nearness and their transcendence and the bliss of it all.
Because there’s not much better than a mountaintop experience. Those moments when we feel God’s presence so close, and everything sort of sharpens into clear focus, and we get it. Those are great; those get us out of bed on the bad days, those keep us going, those little glimmers of light in the darkness.
But those are also few and far between. Life is not a mountaintop. We don’t get to live up there in a booth with Elijah. We come back down the mountain. We live in the valley, for the most part, where things are murkier and dimmer. After this scene on the top, Jesus and the disciples head down the mountain, and they head straight for Jerusalem.
These glimpses of God, this transfiguration wasn’t so much so Peter and the others could feel good about their life choices in following Jesus, really, and it wasn’t to cement their faith for the trials ahead. They’re still going to wimp out in a few weeks.
These flashes of God we experience give further shape to our relationship with God. They illuminate our wrestling in the dark. Like flashes of lightening in a dark room, they cast light over what we’re already doing. Visions alone don’t make a relationship– engagement does. Listening does. Visions only help explain what you’re listening to.
What keeps you going down in the valleys, between those mountaintop flashes of clarity, is engagement with God. Listening. Peter, James, John, they believed in Jesus before they saw him transfigured. They had a relationship with him, following him, listening to him, before Moses and Elijah appeared. They absorbed his words his wisdom, they watched how he lived in the world, how he treated people. They will continue to do that in the days to come, as the church forms.
What forms the church is not so much the blissful surety of the Transfiguration– it’s the plodding engagement of the valley. It’s the listening. The listening that is sometimes hard, sometimes easy. The listening we are called to do every day of our lives as we embody Christ in the world around us.
As we begin to walk the valley toward another Lent, may we hear the words of God speaking to each of us, and calling us onward.
If my geeky brain serves correctly, there was an old form of preaching in Judaism wherein a rabbi would take the given text for the day, which was somewhere in the Torah, and begin his sermon somewhere entirely different, on a totally random verse elsewhere in the Tanakah. Like if the assigned text was the calling of Abram into covenant with YHWH, you would start out by quoting something off the wall, like Proverbs 5:15 “Drink water from your own cistern; and fresh water from your own well.”
And from there, you’d basically leap-frog via associations both linguistic and theological through the scriptures until you arrived at the assigned verse for the day. The farther away your starting point was, and the more associations you made, and the more verses you included, the more brilliant a preacher you were considered to be by the congregation.
I’m not about to try this out anytime soon (any more than I’m about to improvise jazz singing in the pulpit. Other people’s art forms, as much as they might impress me, generally just make me look like a crazy person if I attempt them, especially out of context.) But there’s something about the exuberance of the enterprise that I enjoy. I like the idea that nothing at all, is off limits in preaching, and that we should silence the voice in our heads which pipes and says “Are you allowed to talk about THAT in a sermon?!”
To that end, I offer the following YouTube clip, for all things are better when performed by Legos:
And here is the sermon:
January 22, 2012
3 Epiphany, Year B
Mark 1: 14-20
In the movie, “The Princess Bride”, the villianous mastermind Vizzini kidnaps the princess Buttercup, with the help of the master swordsman Inigo Montoya and the giant Fezzig. As they are escaping on their ship, Vizzini declares any chances that they shall be caught ‘inconceivable.’ And yet, as they continue to head for a neighboring country and safety, the pursing ship begins to catch up with them. “Inconceivable” declares Vizzini! Then Buttercup dives overboard, in a desperate desire to escape. “Inconceivable!” cries Vizzini! Finally, upon reaching land, the band of miscreants ascend straight up the cliffs with their captured princess, only to be pursued again by the captain of the other ship. Again, Vizzini pronounces this turn of events “Inconceivable!” Inigo Montoya turns to him. “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
As Christians in 2012, we come quite a bit after those who first constructed the language of our faith–about 2,012 years after, to be exact. Words like “repent!”, “grace”, “believe”, “faith” all started out meaning one specific thing, with specific connotations and allusions built in, and now, to us, they mean something different. They sound different.
And this isn’t a bad thing. It’s an effect of time, and Time, as Jesus points in the gospel, is not apart from the workings of God. Time builds up, Time accrues for us down the line of history, and those of us who come after the earlier disciples and generations before have a lot more of this linear history to sort through–some helpful, some not as helpful. But all of it there.
And so, when Jesus appears, after the arrest of John the Baptist, in today’s gospel, declaring that the Time has been fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, so we should Repent, and believe the Good news….what is it that we hear, today in 2012?
Whatever it was they heard back then, evidently it was enough to inspire all these fisherfolk to immediately abandon their promising careers on the sea, their families, their homes, and tramp around in the wilderness after Jesus. It was enough to make them get up and change their lives. This declaration of “the time has been fulfilled, repent and believe the good news.” was some sort of freeing magic.
But for us today, sitting on the opposite end of the timeline….. Well, for me at least, it doesn’t seem that motivating, that inspiring. It doesn’t sound like the sort of message that prompts all of Mark’s gospel– it sounds like a rather good bumper sticker on someone else’s car, or the title of a pamphlet someone would stick under my door. Not something that’s going to motivate me to head anywhere at all.
Maybe the weight of time has squashed the message a bit. Or maybe these words don’t mean what we’ve come to think they mean– all bumper sticker slogans and catch phrases.
And if that’s the case, then we should find a better way of explaining ourselves. We should find some new words. Because if all we have to tell our story is advertising catch-phrases off the TV and slogans stolen from radio talk shows, then no one is going to be leaving their nets anywhere. So maybe we need some new words.
Ok. Let’s take a swing at that.
“the time has been fulfilled. The kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe the good news.”
For starters, “time” has two words in Greek. Chronos, which is the linear sort of historical time that I’ve been talking about so far. The sort of time where I can tell you that this service will probably take up 1 hour of your time– the very mundane sort of time marching forward. But Jesus is talking about kairos, which is the sort of time in which God operates. Time which isn’t on a line, that sort of thing we experience through our memory, or in our imagination, when past becomes present and merges into the future. Time that bends and shifts depending on what is happening. That’s what has been fulfilled.
The realm in which God works, where God is actually fully in charge, the kairos, has now broken through into our mundane timeline. The kingdom of God, where the poor are taken care of, the outcast are welcomed, the sick are healed, the lame leap for joy, the oppressed set free, is emerging in our own world.
So we should do what?
“repent” has started to become associated with guilt, and shame, and feeling very bad about oneself. Repent literally means turn around, to go back. It’s an action, not a feeling. It’s not a command to feel something, it’s a command to do something. It’s a command to come back. Come back home.
Come back home, and believe in the good news of what God is doing. Participate in the emerging world that God is creating, right before our eyes. Participate in the good news of a world made whole, where all are cared for, all are welcomed, all are loved, all are fed. Because it’s starting right now, in the actions and person of this guy, Jesus, and you, you personally, are needed.
Imagine what would happen if we took that message into the streets. Imagine what would happen if we went far and wide, proclaiming that God had jumped into our boring, broken, unfair world in order to make it whole, just and loving, and that everyone’s talents were needed in this new project. If we really proclaimed that message, and backed it up with how we lived, how many people could stay in their boats then?
Could anyone stay as they had been before? If we really lived out the call?
I don’t follow football, or any sport, really, with the occasional exception for college basketball or the Olympics. (This, and a specific disregard for the Phillies and the Eagles makes my parents wonder if I was switched at birth.)
- I don’t know what ‘only-begotten’ means.
- Does ‘everlasting life’ mean literal ‘you-never-die’, or something metaphorical? (Because that actually does matter. And should be discussed/explained.)
- And how do I believe in him? (also, which him are we talking about?)
- Do I believe in the historical reality of Jesus, or something more specific, and if the latter, then what, specifically?
- And, the verse says nothing about what I should do, in the next moment. Nothing about how I should treat the woman sitting at the desk beside mine, or the guy sitting on the sidewalk outside the door, or the kid wandering down the street, who stole my GPS last year. None of that is addressed.
- Good, pithy, strong verbs, etc. Covers the ‘here’s what you do!’ aspect well. But the question format might leave some doubt as to the fact that, in fact, God does want you to do the justice, kindness, humble-walking bit.
- In reality, I’d nominate all of ch.4 in 1 John, mainly because it goes on at length about God=love. (Seriously. Read 1 John, whilst skipping over the bit about the antichrist.) But entire chapters of the Bible, especially of Johannine epistles, are not pithy.
- Again, brevity is a problem here. But it’s just so good…..
The ordained are no strangers to projection.