A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli with Foundry UMC, February 14, 2021, Transfiguration Sunday. “Tired Feet, Rested Souls” series.
Text: Mark 9:2-9
Months ago, in a conversation among the staff team related to our Journey to Racial Justice initiative, an African American staff member asked, “Is the goal for us to simply become a nicer, kinder, more well-informed version of white supremacy? Or are we trying to really change things?” This, for me, is an important set of clarifying questions as we move more deeply into this pivotal year as a congregation, denomination, and nation. And the questions may find some response on this Transfiguration Sunday.
Six days prior to the extraordinary events we read about today in our Gospel, Jesus told his disciples what was going to happen to him—that he would suffer, be rejected, killed, and then after three days rise again. Peter didn’t want to hear it. And Jesus’ response was, “You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Mk. 8:31ff.) Jesus goes on to speak to the disciples and the larger crowds about what a “divine thing” looks like: deny self, take up your cross, lose your life for Christ’s sake and for the sake of the gospel, because that is the only way to truly have or save or keep your life. And six days after Jesus shares these words, he takes Peter, James, and John up a mountain to pray. And then things got weird and wondrous and scary. Moses the lawgiver and Elijah the prophet show up and talk with Jesus who is, himself, a fulfillment of both law and prophecy. Jesus’ appearance changes in a “dazzling” display, and not, by the way in a way that makes his brown eyes blue, but in a way as amazing as if I could keep using environmentally friendly detergent and get my whites to come out of the laundry like new-fallen snow (that would be a miracle for sure!). Peter, unable to simply receive what was happening, offers a suggestion for what they should do. And just then, out of the foggy cloud, there comes one very clear message of exactly what they should do: “This is my Beloved child. LISTEN to him.” Listen.
One would think that such an amazing experience coupled with this clear message would have an impact on those present. But it seems that listening was just as hard for the first disciples as it is for us. Because Jesus has to keep repeating himself. The text records that Jesus speaks of his suffering, death, and resurrection two more times (9:31, 10:34). The disciples must not have been listening in their active listening workshop because they completely miss the point. The first time, they respond by playing that best-selling game “Who’s The Greatest?” And the next time James and John—who witnessed the vision on the mountain and heard the voice from the cloud—ask for plum positions in Jesus’ Cabinet after he wins the election. Both times, Jesus responds with the same message: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mk. 9:35, 10:44) Die to self so that you can rise to a new life in God’s love, a life that manifests in self-giving service to others. Three times this pattern plays out; three times Jesus speaks of dying and rising. Why was it so hard for the first disciples to listen and to truly comprehend this? Why is it so difficult for us?
First of all, it’s often difficult to get ourselves out of the way so that God can get through to us, so that we can truly receive a voice that is not just the echo of our own voice. And then, if we are able to grow quiet or still enough to receive what God is saying, the message—especially this core message!—presents its own challenge. Because who really wants to hear about losing yourself, being humbled, giving something up? Jesus’ teaching about dying to self and rising to a new life of loving service threatens the status quo of our lives—it requires change. Jesus’ words about denying the self is in direct opposition to the world that tells us to invest in self-help, self-defense, and self-promotion. Jesus calls us to follow him, to lose the false self and claim our true humanity, and that challenges any notion of ourselves as either too important or too insignificant to serve others. Jesus’ call to serve others is not a cozy, comfortable idea that we can accomplish by simply “liking” certain posts on FaceBook or reTweeting the pithy ideas of other people (though in my experience even doing that can put us in an uncomfortable position with friends and family).
To really listen to Jesus is to hear ourselves being called out of complacency, to hear ourselves being given work to do, to acknowledge the prejudices, bigotry, and defensiveness that get in the way of our solidarity with others, our responsibility to not just look out for #1 but to look out for the well-being of others and to sacrifice things if needed for their sake. It is to hear a call to true solidarity with suffering, to sit with it in ourselves and with others and to allow brokenness to lead you where it will. Jesus knew where it was leading him. // And it was only after he was led there, all the way to the cross and beyond, that those first disciples really got the message. Their lives were changed forever.
If we really take in the message of Jesus, the proclamation of the Kin-dom, the good news that is Gospel, we will see there is no half-way, there is no lukewarm, there is no kinda-sorta in the call. It may not happen all at once—we in the Wesleyan spiritual tradition do talk about “growth in holiness” and “going on to perfection/perfect love” after all. But my point is that you either commit to follow the Jesus revealed in the Bible or not. And Jesus was not half-hearted, but was an “extremist.” Not the kind we may immediately associate with that word—persons whose focus is exclusive and violent. Jesus was an “extremist for love, truth and goodness.”
On this Transfiguration Sunday, as we conclude our series infused with the teachings of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from his Letter from the Birmingham City Jail, I am struck by Dr. King’s reflections on extremism. King was responding to the “white moderates” about whom he lamented, “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” The “lukewarm” position of the “white moderates” led them to call the non-violent direct actions being done in Birmingham “extreme.” At first, King was “disappointed” about this but, upon reflection, decided he could wear that label with pride. He wrote:
Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary's hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime—the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.
I believe that the nation and world remain in dire need of creative extremists.
The story we receive from the Gospel today reveals the vision given to a handful of disciples long ago, and the vision wasn’t a change in Jesus, but a change in what the disciples perceived in Jesus. Perhaps we might think of it as a transfiguration of their vision, a revelation or unveiling of more of Jesus’ identity. And it’s a terrifying, wonder-full-on revelation of a human life completely One with God and lit from within with all the gifts and power of Spirit. It is an extreme moment whose message is clear: “This is my Beloved child. LISTEN to him.” And not “in one ear and out the other” listening. And not listening in a way that leaves you cozy in the status quo of “my way and right away” and doing only what “works for me.” Rather, listen and truly receive, take in the message and vision of life infused with self-giving love, justice, humility, compassion, and courage—because that is what the world needs, it’s what our shredded relationships and Republic need, it’s what we ourselves need. Spiritual writer, Frederick Buechner says, “To journey for the sake of saving our own lives is little by little to cease to live in any sense that really matters, even to ourselves, because it is only by journeying for the world’s sake—even when the world bores and sickens and scares you half to death—that little by little we start to come alive.”
That is what we are all asked to do today: listen to the One who reveals to us how to participate in the work of new creation and to live. God’s law reveals how to live together in peace with justice so that all receive the dignity and provision of life in God’s Kin-dom. God’s prophets reveal a vision toward which we are always working and warn of the obstacles in getting there. The call to practice the law and align with the prophetic vision in our lives and communities requires real transformation. “Is the goal for us to simply become a nicer, kinder, more well-informed version of white supremacy?” That would be like a people who take the powerful, prophetic words of Martin Luther King, Jr. and put them on refrigerator magnets or t-shirts but don’t write the words on their hearts. That would be a lukewarm reception of what Spirit is saying that allows for gaslighting, denial, and rationalizations. The goal is not to be more well-informed, the goal is transfiguration, creative extremism. The goal is to be extremists for love, extremists for the extension of justice. The goal is a more truly human world, scrubbed of the stains of white supremacy, economic injustice, environmental destruction, and every form of prejudice and tribal violence. Are you willing to go up the proverbial mountain with Jesus, pray for the grace to truly receive the voice of Christ—in the words of scripture, in the witness of the saints past and present, in the voices of those around us who may be saying things hard to hear—and to be open to the particular ways that God is speaking, calling, acting in your life today, ways that will really change you? If so, listen with a humble heart, a quiet mind, an open door. And be ready to step back onto the journey from the place of revelation and transfiguration to wherever the path—and God’s love—leads. It won’t be simple or easy—that is certain. But what is even more certain still is that beloved community and life, deep and true, awaits.