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Who do you say that I am?

Driving home from Prov 8, I let the students play music off my iPhone. The DJing student selected the playlist I had constructed last year entitled “Southern mix”– because it was music that reminded me of being in a kid in Virginia in the summer.
We listened in silence for a few songs, broken only by my shock that several (SEVERAL) of them hadn’t heard the musical genius that is Marshall Tucker Band’s Can’t You See.* (If you haven’t heard it either, go listen. I’ll wait.)

Finally, one of the students said, “There’s a surprising lack of country on this playlist. Aren’t you from the South?”

I was puzzled. There was actually no country on that playlist. There was lots of blues, there was lots of stuff recorded at Muscle Shoals, there was Atlanta hip-hop, there was the Alabama Shakes, and the Black Keys, and Tuesday’s Gone by Skynyrd (piano solo!), and some gospel and Nina Simone, but no country at all. And wasn’t that the South, too?

I don’t associate country music with what I know of the South. Apparently, many other people do, though. Who gets to decide what ‘the South’ is?** Who gets to tell this story?

Those proscribed identities, all those narratives that we assume we know–they’re problematic–both for those inside the group and those outside. It’s a problem when we let the idea of ‘the South’ be represented by only Brad Paisley (saints preserve us) or, worse, Rick Perry or Ken Cucinelli (…let’s just all move to Canada. They have health care.)

In the church? Also not helpful to let our identity, our story get co-opted.
It’s not helpful when the guys carrying the banner of “Christian” are preaching the fiery destruction of hell for 3/4ths the population, or explaining the evils of birth control, or gay marriage. When the loudest Christian voices are preaching anything but love, our voice has been co-opted. And we have a problem, because the story of the Gospel of love isn’t being told.

For a little while now, our collective solution to this has seemed to be to back away quietly, and hope the illogic of the louder voices would soon become clear. (This might be because we are Episcopalians, largely, and someone told us that it was quite impolite to contradict, or argue in public.)

Yeah, that didn’t happen. It turns out, no one hears the truth that you don’t speak out loud. People don’t actually learn through osmosis, and as much as we might think it obviously flawed and ridiculous, if no one presents any alternative, then everyone will go with the single, loudest definition for Christian.

So it’s up to us, who have a problem with the current, dominant definition to say something. To start telling our own story, to play our own song, and present a counter narrative. If we think the loudest religious voices are wrong, what do we think is closer to right?

What does being a Christian mean to you?

*Lyrics like Gonna find me/a hole in the wall/ Gonna crawl inside and die just cannot be argued with if you want to get real about Feelings.
Also, there is a flute. Because this was the 1970s, and this was how you rolled, if you were a legit blues band, evidently.

**If you want to read what a smarter person than me thinks about this, read what Ta-Nehesi Coates wrote about Brad Paisley, and the South here.
It’s what got me started thinking about this, and also what makes me want to get a Faulkner or Ida B Wells t-shirt. Definitely ordering my Harriet Tubman coffee mug, though.

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The trials of transfiguration

I have actually been preaching these last few weeks. I haven’t been posting the sermons on the blog, because I have doubted the amount of sermons that folks actually read.
Sermons are oral/aural events more than anything else. (At least, this is what I keep telling myself as I wave my hands all around and hope I don’t look like I’m suffering a spasm.)

This month, I’m on the Great Preaching Tour of 2013 to talk about Canterbury’s fundraising drive to buy a home. The students accompany me, and my trusty board president, who enjoys asking people to give money. (Fellow clergy, I am working out the cloning technology for him. Stay tuned.)
We started out in Sedona, and last week took us to Tucson. Where I got snowed in. In Arizona, this is a thing that happens when you live atop a mountain. It may be pleasantly warm in the low desert, but it is dumping snow higher up, and the roads are closed anyway.

Despite my weather difficulties, the sermon and the fundraising went very well. People who like young people are, in fact, my favorite sort of people in the world.

Here is what I said.

Luke 9:28-43

Westboro Baptist Church has become a cautionary tale nowadays–a hissing and a byword among nations. If you want to give an example of the worst hypocrisy, the worst example of hatred masquerading as religious piety, then that teeny church out in Kansas is it. After all, the members of that church spend their time not praying, or worshipping, or serving the poor, but going from event to event, protesting. They show up at military funerals, at any well-publicized funeral really, and hold signs, and loudly insist that this is God’s angry wrath punishing America for being so very, very sinful. That is their job–that’s what Westboro Baptist does. Most irritatingly and disturbingly, and unfortunately, effectively.

So it was shocking this week to read that the granddaughter of the pastor, Megan Phelps-Roper, had up and left the church, moved to New York City, and was now re-thinking the theology she was raised with. In the interview, she said she still believed in God, she still went to church (a liberal Presbyterian one in Brooklyn) but everything felt different–life had started over.

Her process of leaving had started in an email interview conducted with an Israeli journalist, who pushed her a bit on this hateful God she was describing, who killed children as punishment, and sent everyone to hell. “What would Jesus say about that? Wasn’t Jesus the person who said not to cast stones?” He asked. The question stuck in her brain, and that started the snowball rolling::-she couldn’t bring herself to hold the angry signs anymore, couldn’t yell at people at the protests, and a few months later, she left.

One little push, one little nudge, and suddenly, this young woman was beginning to transform. She was beginning the slow, awkward process of meeting God, and becoming the person that God had intended all along.

For most of us, this transfiguration process, this process of growing into the fullness of who God has made us to be, is a life-long endeavor. We stumble through it in fits and starts, we do great for a while, then plateau for a couple decades or so. It’s a process. It’s a journey, for us– the more we grow into our createdness, the more clearly we can hear God’s call to us. And on and on it goes. Grow a bit, hear God a bit more clearly.

Jesus, though. Jesus skips all that stuff. (As is typical, for he is Jesus.)
With Jesus, he’s been on somewhat of a roll this last chapter or so of Luke. He’s been going around Galilee, he’s healed, he’s taught, he’s preached. He’s tried to convey at least some of his message to his disciples, with varying degrees of success.

And most recently, Peter has acclaimed him as the Christ, the Son of God–so some of this is sinking in. Now, Jesus knows what’s going to happen next– the direct result of being the Son of God, and the Messiah is death, and resurrection, but not before the death part.
So Jesus is about to embark on the hardest, the very hardest part of his earthly ministry.
And up the mountain he goes.
He takes Peter, James and John with him, and treks up the mountain, and once there, he experiences sort of the culmination of his earthly ministry. The confirmation of who he is, and what he is supposed to do on this earth.
Moses and Elijah appear–the embodiment of the Jewish law–Moses, and all the Prophets–Elijah. And these two luminaries speak to Jesus, because if you’re the Messiah, what are you but the culmination of the Law and the Prophets? This is some great validation right here.
Then the capper– from heaven, God’s voice appearing, and thundering from the clouds— this is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.

This is my Child, the Beloved.

It’s a risky thing to crawl inside the mind of Jesus Christ, but my guess would be that for anyone, Jesus included, hearing those words directed at you! from the Creator would be a powerfully life-affirming thing. Something you would strain your whole life to hear, like a plant growing up towards the sun. Irrefutable confirmation that you are whole, valued, valuable, worthy and known. Down to your bones.
This is powerful stuff. The strength of this experience would give Jesus strength to “turn his face towards Jerusalem” and face the remainder of his ministry on earth. As a beloved child of God, what more reassurance did he need?

Us, well, …we live in a world that’s largely without booming voices from heaven. For us, our journeys towards figuring out who God created us to do and be doesn’t end in flashes of illumination and thundering voices. Our journeys toward transfiguration are lifelong. They double back on themselves, they twist and turn. We figure something out just to get confused all over again. A lot of the time, we don’t know if we’re headed in the right direction.

We stumble towards God, as God calls us, and we stumble towards self-knowledge, but so frequently, as with Jesus, those two things are intertwined. When Jesus figured out who he was, and what he was supposed to do, God became a lot easier to hear. And the more we grow into the truth and beauty of who God made us to be, the easier it becomes to hear God’s affirming words of love for us, and for the world around us.

A lot of the time, we have to rely on those around us, those who play the roles of Peter, James and John in our lives, to help us navigate. To tell us when we’re headed up the mountain, and when we’re headed down. To reflect back to us the shining light of God’s love.

In my work as a college chaplain– this is one of my main jobs: to form communities of disciples who can support each other and reflect to each other the light of Christ. Because when do you need more a trsnsfiguring, supportive community than those first years of young adulthood?

But though our paths may take longer to get there, they still have the same result as Jesus’s did. For each of us, even though the journey is confusing and the loving voice is hard to hear, the path of our spiritual life arcs towards a mountaintop where we arrive fully as God made us, entirely human, and completely reflecting the shining image of God. A place where God greets our arrival with joy, and we can hear the words God has been saying this whole time: You are my beloved Child– with you I am well-pleased.