The faithfulness of “why?” (Isaiah 55.1-9)

The faithfulness of “why?” (Isaiah 55.1-9)
Eastminster United Presbyterian Church, Lent 3C (March 24, 2018)
Tom James
My dad was in the grocery business, and so was his dad. One of the many things I learned from my father that has shaped my life as a consumer of groceries is a little trick that grocery store managers learn during their training. My dad called it “merchandising,” and it was a way of strategically placing items on display in places they might not ordinarily be to get the customer to notice and take an interest that they might not otherwise have had. The goal is to get people to make what he called “impulse buys.” I’m a bit of pushover for Oreo cookies, so I’m an easy target for a well-placed display even when I’m looking for something healthy. You could probably put it the produce section, and I’d think, “Yeah, I’ll pick up some Oreos to eat while I’m making my salad.” I’m sure we have all noticed this, so it’s no big secret, but apparently, there’s both a science and an art to merchandising.
Several years ago, Michelle and I were lucky to be able to take our family on a cruise. We decided to purchase guided tours to fill our days on shore. The tours were mostly interesting if a bit tiring, but one of the things that every tour guide was sure to do was to take us through a gauntlet of small merchants selling trinkets and souvenirs. It’s interesting how easy it is to get people to buy cheap stuff that probably won’t last very long to try and hold on to memories of a vacation that we’re probably going to remember anyway. I wondered about what the guides received in return for bringing vulnerable customers to these markets. Was that merchandising, too?
Our passage from Isaiah this morning takes up the imagery of a probably open-air market. “Why do you spend your money on what doesn’t satisfy?” It’s as if one vendor is calling out to someone who’s eye is caught by another vendor’s flashy display. “Hey, don’t look over there! He doesn’t have the good stuff. It’s not going to make you happy. Why spend your money there, when I have the best you’ll find anywhere, and it’s practically free!”
This passage comes at the end of a major section of Isaiah, written to the people of Judah who were in exile in Babylon, and speaks of the renewal of God’s covenant with Judah. Isaiah is using the image of an open-air market to call attention to the fact that we are easily distracted from what is important by things that are bright and shiny. Not just the people of Judah, who might have been tempted by easy shortcuts or positions of power and influence instead of the important work of rebuilding the nation. But us, today. We’re all too easily manipulated by what is attractively presented, what is trendy and popular.
I want to focus our attention on this one little word that we hear in this imaginary open-air market. “Why?” I suggest that, even though “Why” can be one of the most annoying words in the world if you are a parent of a pre-school child, it is also one of the most powerful for people of any age. One of the worst slogans of my formative years was “Why ask why?” It was as if to say that asking “Why” was pointless, because very often it can’t be answered and, anyway, any answer we might get wouldn’t change anything. But “Why ask why?” is cynical—it’s a way of saying we have to accept things as they are and not expect anything ever to get better.
Most of the time, when the question “Why” comes to mind, we are looking for an explanation, some kind of reason or rationale behind things that happen, especially when those things are bad or hurtful. Why did he treat me that way? Why are there so many potholes that never get filled? Why are the hymns so hard to sing? Or, here’s one: why is there so much poverty in East Toledo? Or, why is there still such a gap in pay between women and men? “Why” is what we ask when we wish to press the issue—to demand that circumstances justify themselves, and to signal that, if they can’t, they need to be changed. To ask “Why” means that we still believe in history, that we still believe in the power of human beings to make things better. Why ask why? Faith, that’s why.
But I suggest that there’s an even deeper, more important kind of “Why?” Sometimes, in moments of clarity, we turn that question back on ourselves. Why do I keep getting tricked and manipulated by slick merchandising? Why do I keep spending my money on what does not satisfy? Why do I continue to act in a way that is highly profitable for other people, people who do the merchandising, but not at all beneficial for me? Why do I quite literally buy into a lifestyle that popular culture puts before me as the key to happiness when all it does is make me feel inadequate because I can’t quite pull off the look, can’t quite measure up to the standard? The merchandisers always want us to want more, to feel empty. Why do I keep obliging them, when feeling empty makes me miserable?
Isaiah wanted Judah to ask those questions of itself, and I believe God wants us to ask those questions of ourselves today. The question is hard. The bread that doesn’t satisfy is all around us, isn’t it? The cheap trinkets of culture that we so mindlessly consume, their supply chains hidden beneath the manufactured veneer of shared wealth and success. So much of what we are taught to want is made in horrible working conditions, sweatshops in places like Turkey, Bangladesh, and Cambodia, places far removed from our awareness, and so as we consume them, we put ourselves in an alienating relationship, an exploitative relationship, with suffering peoples of the world without even knowing it. It’s bread that cannot satisfy because it hollows us out. As we consume without being able to have a relationship with where things come from or to understand how they got to us, the human connection with what we consume is lost, and not only do we feel empty, but we become empty.
Why do we spend our money on what is not bread, on things that can’t satisfy? Meanwhile, trash builds up. North of the state line, we have a proliferation of what we all “Michigan mountains,” large landfills that you could probably use for skiing. Other places, there are rivers of plastics; there is a collection of garbage that is as large as a large state floating in the Pacific; there is so much carbon in the atmosphere that the climate is actually changing in our lifetimes and droughts, fires and floods rage. Mozambique and Nebraska today are partially underwater because of devastating storms and floods.
Why are we so invested in what does not satisfy?
 It seems to me that what we need in our time is some spiritual discipline, some focused attention on what is important and what gives life. And part of that involves looking inward and probing our own hearts. As I said before, to ask “why?” is to demand justification. If can’t justify our wants—if they don’t really serve our interests, or if they do harm to our souls—then maybe we should reconsider them.
Our passage from Isaiah ends with some of the loftiest and, I believe, most hopeful lines in all of Scripture. “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are my ways your ways, says the Lord. Just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” These are hopeful words because they tell us that we are in a relationship with a God who is not bound by our wants, nor by our understanding. God has better plans for us that we can know or even desire. If we find ourselves caught up in a cycle of ignorance and guilt—and, as human beings, we will find ourselves there all too often—we can nevertheless trust God to keep nudging us, keep pressing us to ask the “Why” question of ourselves. The spirit of God is within us, and, though the voice of God is not always the loudest in the marketplace, it is far more insistent than any merchandizer’s gimmicks. In the name of God, our creator and redeemer. Amen.

City of peace (Luke 13.31-35

City of Peace (Luke 13.31-35)
Eastminster United Presbyterian Church/Lent 2 (February 21, 2016)

Tom James

The most important word in the Christian faith, says one prominent theologian, is “with.”[1]You’d think it’d be a longer word or a more impressive one! But the most astounding claim Christians make is that God is with us. In Jesus Christ, the power and presence of the God who made a vast universe comes to dwell—with. And yet, as incredible as this is, it falls directly in line with the whole, long tradition of Hebrew Scripture, in which God is painfully and hopefully with God’s people, in bondage, in exile, in the wilderness, in battle, and in miraculous crossings of seas and rivers. God is with the people wherever they go. God is not attached to a place, where people must come if they want to be with God. No, God is a God who goes with, who is to be found everywhere, who leaves no place profane and unhallowed.
But there is something about Jerusalem. Perhaps no place has been fought over as much as Jerusalem. It goes back thousands of years. It was brutally sacked in ancient times—many times over, in fact. It was taken and re-taken by Christian crusaders in the middle ages. It is riven in two by disputes between Jews and Arabs today, a dispute which in many ways is the continuation of the crusader wars. And that conflict over a few square miles, as we know, has implications for the global order itself: our own foreign policy in this nation has been shaped profoundly by it. A new round of fights has recently broken out over it. I’ve often wondered in recent years, in fact, whether the “global war on terror” begun in 2001 will be remembered by historians as a third world war, and how central the occupation of Jerusalem by European settlers will prove to have been in setting that war in motion. In any case, Jerusalem has been, in one way or another, a seat of power and a focus of political conflict virtually from the time of its founding, shrouded in the fog of ancient history.
But Jerusalem means, city of “peace.” It is the place of “shalom,” in Hebrew, of “salaam,” in Arabic. It is where God’s togetherness with the peoples of the world is symbolized most richly and with the most elevated hopes. If there is any one place that makes God’ “with us” the clearest, where human togetherness is supposed to be the most profoundly transformed by God’s togetherness with us, it is Jerusalem. Here, God shelters God’s people. Here, according to rabbinic legend, heaven and earth come close enough to touch.
Here is also where Jesus will go, and this is why he is not afraid of “that fox,” Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee who killed John the Baptist and who know seems to be gunning for Jesus. The Pharisees come and warn Jesus that he is a marked man as he long as he remains in Galilee, and the reader wonders whether they do so out of genuine concern for him, or to make Jesus afraid or to put him in his place. In any case, whatever their motivations, Jesus is undeterred by their warning. It won’t be a puppet ruler of Galilee, put there by the Roman empire, that will decide Jesus’ fate. Jesus will not die in Galilee but will go to Jerusalem, the city of peace where prophets are always killed.
This short passage is full of ominous foreshadowing. If we fast-forward in the story, it is interesting to find that Jesus does end up before Herod with his life on the line. This is during what William Herzog calls Jesus’ “show trial,” when he is hauled before Pilate, and sent to Herod, and then back to Pilate, and also before a group of elders in Jerusalem who scrutinize and condemn him. Herzog points out that to call these events a “trial” is probably anachronistic because the word suggests for us an attempt to ascertain whether a person is innocent or guilty. A “show trial” of the kind Jesus underwent, however, was not a juridical or judicial event but a political one. It was an effort publically to humiliate a person who has been determined to be an enemy of the state, much as in Stalin’s Russia. The outcome was not in doubt. No evidence was sifted, no cross-examinations by a defense were allowed. Witnesses were brought forward not to aid in determining the facts of the case, but simply to give voice to the state’s pre-determined condemnation of its enemy. That is why Jesus knew that he went to Jerusalem to die. He knew he was to enter the city, among throngs of palm waivers, as a man condemned.
So, in reality, Herod has no power of him, after all. Whether or not Herod wants him dead is immaterial. He will be killed because he is an enemy of the state, and the rulers of Jerusalem, in league with the state as they are, will kill him, just as they killed the prophets in generations past.
And still, Jesus goes to Jerusalem, to be with the people during the Passover. Why does he go? Is it because he thinks he has to die to satisfy God’s wrath at sinners? This is a later interpretation of the Jesus story that we cannot attribute to Jesus himself. Is it because he wanted to confront injustice there, to go straight to the heart of the powers that be in Israel and to call them out? Maybe. But he could do that in Galilee, just as John the Baptist did. There’s a really simple reason why Jesus wanted to go to Jerusalem, actually. It was Passover, and that is where the people would be, praying and longing for deliverance, faithfully remembering their traditions and rehearsing their hopes. Jesus wants to go and be with them in the midst of their occupation by the Roman empire. He wants to be with them as they are subjected to corrupt rulers who want to preserve the so-called peace of Rome because they have learned how to benefit from it. Jesus wants to go and be with the people as he calls out injustice, as he resists the reign of Caesar, and as he announces the kingdom of God in their midst. Just as he is with them in the Galilee, as he heals, casts out demons, counsels Jews to give Caesar back his dirty coins, sends out disciples two by two, aligns himself with those on the lowest rungs of the social ladder. These are all ways that he lives out his desire to be “with.”
Commentators note about this passage that is heavily laced with human desire. Herod wants Jesus dead. Jesus wants to gather the people of Jerusalem like a mother hen gathers her chicks. The people don’t want to be so gathered. The same Greek word is used in each instance. And the overall picture puts the wants of Jesus, God’s Messiah, and the people of God, both ruler and ruled, in opposition. And, in many ways, this opposition isn’t just about what Jesus stands for. It is about who he is.
Not just who he was in the first century, but who he is today. Jesus wants to be with us. We, so often, don’t want to be with him. That’s the heartbreak of this passage if we would hear it as a message for us. Now, to be fair, I don’t think that there is any doubt that we are “for” Jesus, just as the Palm Sunday crowds would be, especially when he stands up against those who wrong us or others that we care about. And, of course, we would “vote” for him if given the opportunity. We would root for him in a heated primary. We’d like him on facebook. We’d speak up for him on social media, and maybe even troll his opponents. We’d even canvass for him, going door to door, if it came to it. Well, maybe not! But, anyway, it’s not as if we aren’t committed to the cause.
But “for” isn’t the most important word in Christianity, remember? Being Christian isn’t a matter, primarily, of being for something. It’s not a matter of being partisan. There is certainly a place for partisanship. After all, throughout Scripture God seems to be forthe outcast, the rejected, the poor. The Good Samaritan is for a Jewish stranger who has been robbed, beaten, and left for dead. Jesus himself is for the woman caught adultery when the blamers seek to end her life in a torrent of stones. But God’s being for is not the cold willfulness of choosing “a” instead of “b,” blue instead of red, or red instead of blue. It is, rather, that God is for those whom God wants to be with. The God we see in the flaming pillar that leads Israel through the desert, that we see even more brightly reflected in Jesus, is a God of passionate involvement, a God whose most powerful act is not to create, nor to manage, but to dwell with, to inhabit. “God with us” is an even greater truth than “in the beginning, God created…” God’s partisanship, God’s being forus, is really just an aspect of the fact that God wants to be with us.
Being with is what God is. God is the one who wants to be with, who does not choose to be alone, isolated in divine splendor. God is the one whose very life consists in choosing community, of being together. And so, as we are aligned with God—if we feel that we must take a stand for God, let us never forget that being for God can only mean being with God’s creatures in their joys and in their sufferings. To be for God means to be with the victims of shootings and other violent attacks, in our own neighborhood or in New Zealand, whether they are like us or whether they are not. Being for God means being with those who are excluded from community or who are oppressed or exploited. Being for God, in fact, means acknowledging no boundaries to the call to be with. It means that no circle can be drawn around our love, that the human togetherness that we are for can’t be limited by the bounds of race, or nation, or religion. It’s daring and it’s dangerous to take that stand, because the powers of our world are all about breaking people up, keeping people isolated from each other, all about protecting and maintaining walls of division and hostility. But the object of our faith, the divine mother hen we know in Jesus Christ, is all about gathering the chicks, all about including everyone, all about with, even it kills her.
And, as grim as it sounds, that’s good news for us. For you and I are gathered, like chicks under the loving protection of a mother hen. And no matter how much we squirm, no matter how loud squawk, no matter how much we may seek to be isolated from God, God is steadfastly with us. God doesn’t abandon us. And because of that, we insist on being with each other, and on being withthe world, even if it kills us. In the name of God, our creator and redeemer. Amen.

[1]Sam Wells, Nazareth Manifesto: Being With God (Wiley, 2015).

The weakness of power (Luke 4.1-13)

The Weakness of Power (Luke 4.1-13)
Eastminster United Presbyterian Church, Lent 1C, Kirkin’ the Tartans (March 10, 2019)
Tom James
Back in the 1980s, there was an anti-drug campaign that used the line, “Just say no.” Some of you may remember the ads. For people in my generation who were deluged with this message, it was probably not very effective, and it also became something of a joke. We would use the line to talk about trivial things: “Just say no” to leg warmers, or high-waters, or big hair. “Just say no” to stupid songs or goofy ads. But of course, the “just say no” campaign was about something much more serious: “just say no” to drugs, and to peers who try and push them on you. Just say no to chemicals that can take over your life, that can diminish your abilities, that can make you susceptible to life-threatening accidents or injuries or overdoses. “Just say no” was about resisting things that could damage or destroy or enslave.
There’s actually something very important about this simple act, even if it seemed silly to me and my peers at the time. It isn’t just about saying “no” to things the government doesn’t approve, but, much more deeply, of learning to say “no” to things that harm us. Sometimes, in fact, it means saying “no” and standing firm in our “no,” against any and all social pressure that would demand that we conform and submit. “Just say no” can be a way of refusing the demand that we stay quiet about the truth about ourselves our about the world as we see it. “Just say no” was what Martin Luther was doing when he refused to bow to the pressure of bishops to recant his truth, what Rosa Parks was doing when she refused to sit at the back of the bus, what independently-minded Scots have done for centuries in the face of English dominance, what teachers are doing now when they are told they have to accept terrible working conditions and inadequate resources. We discover over and over again what power there is in saying “no.”
In Luke, Jesus begins his ministry with three opportunities to “just say no.” We call these “the temptation story.” In the first “temptation,” Jesus resists the urging to turn stones into bread. Now, we know from the rest of the gospel story that Jesus has the power to do it, and that he doesn’t mind doing it when the need is great. Remember the feeding of the five thousand? But here it is a matter of whether his hunger will have power over him, whether he will succumb to the urging to use his gifts to satisfy his own private need. And he says, “no.”
In the third temptation, Jesus resists the suggestion of trying to coerce divine intervention to protect him from his own reckless actions. Later in this same chapter, we find him actually doing something like that when he denounces leaders in his own hometown, leading them to try to throw him off a cliff. But, here, it is a matter of whether he will make his own rescue an end in itself—whether he will seek to show that he is invulnerable to physical injury and death. It is a question of whether he will be bound by his need for safety and security. And Jesus says, “no.”
But it is the middle temptation, I think, that cuts to the heart of the matter. In his second temptation, Jesus is shown all the kingdoms of the world and asked if he would rule them. This one is key to the story of Jesus, because Jesus in the gospels is announced as the “Christ,” the anointed one, and the “anointed” one is what you would call someone who has the authority to reign. As the “anointed one,” Jesus is supposed to be the one who will finally bring all the nations into the commonwealth of God. It would seem here that the tempter is offering him precisely what his goal is, or should be.
But Jesus knows that it isn’t that simple. He knows that the way he will reign is not by means of the same kind of coercive power by which states and governments keep their people in order. Make no mistake, Jesus embraces the role of “Messiah,” and to be a messiah is to be a political force that will challenge the authority of the empire, but the force of Jesus does not take the form of the strong force of armies, or of coalitions or parties that seek to gain control of legislatures and parliaments. This strong force, this force of militarism and statecraft, the force that we often think is the most powerful thing in the world, is precisely the force that is offered to Jesus by the tempter. It is the force that seems inevitable. It is the force that seems to be required to get anything done, even something good, or great.
But this kind of power is also the force that the great twentieth-century theologian Karl Barth said is “evil,” because it is not subordinated or put to work in the service of love. Force without love is the force of the Roman empire, which achieves a lot by expanding its territory by constantly waging warfare and by gobbling up resources and people. And it is just this kind of force that Jesus refuses to acknowledge as ultimate.
Let’s be clear, though: by not worshipping the tempter, by not bowing the knee to the lie that says imperial power is the only real power there is, by resisting and refusing the ideology of the ruling powers, Jesus is already fated to be crushed by those ruling powers. Saying “no” here in the wilderness already sets him on a path that leads to the cross. But here is the thing: Jesus knows that this is his path. Jesus begins his ministry with these temptations, he begins his own Lenten journey, as it were, already headed toward Jerusalem, not to reign in the strong power of Caesar, but to make manifest a different kind of power altogether. It is what philosopher John Caputo calls “weak power,” what Paul in 1 Corinthians calls “the power made perfect in weakness.” It is the power of insistent love.
What is this, if not the gospel in a nutshell? Our own anxieties to control our lives, anxieties that so often tempt us to try and control others, that get amplified in our collective lives together and lead to wars, and oppression, to misunderstandings and to brutalities, to massive inequities and to concentrations of resources in the hands of the few, to apathy toward others as we seal ourselves off in our secure neighborhoods and enclaves, all of these anxieties fail to have ultimate power over us. Jesus freed himself from them in those forty days in the wilderness, and as we are joined with him, we are freed from them, too.  
We often think of Lent as a time for curbing our appetites, of reigning in our desires, maybe even giving up something that we enjoy or value. These things are part of what Lent has meant to Christians over the centuries, to be sure, but there is something deeper, a more joyful possibility that is made real during these forty days. The good news is that Jesus unites us to himself, and that means that he unites us in his own resistance to the inevitability of those forces that crush love and justice. Lent is time for us to practice the joyful “no”-saying that union with Christ makes possible for us.
But it’s important to understand that “just saying no” in Lent isn’t just negative. It also means saying “yes” to God. Saying “no” to the strong forces of power is also saying “yes” to the weak force of love. And we can do that in very practical ways. We can add practices to our lives during these weeks. We can learn more about prayer, and we can try on new habits of prayer. Prayer, by the way, is weak because, by its nature, it does not try to control and manage—rather, it teaches us to give our lives, with their burdens and cares, into the hands of God we are learning how to trust. We can practice contemplative reading. We can mediate. We can engage in various kinds of service. All of these are types of activity that are unproductive. They are all ways to resist the temptation to cram our lives with accomplishment and useable value. They are also ways to say, “Yes, God, these sacred symbols and stories, these promises of Scripture, these calls to love our neighbor as ourselves, are valuable to me, even if they do not produce tangible results.” They are ways of interrupting our ordinary routines and obligations and general busy-ness with moments of recognition that we are not in control, that we are embarked on a joyful adventure of faith.

A few days ago on Ash Wednesday, I repeated a call that is printed in our Presbyterian Book of Common Worship, a call to a “holy Lent.” There is much about the season that is a “downer.” We repent. We acknowledge our mortality. We stop saying “Alleluia” (oops). The culmination of these forty days is a holy week in which we reflect on the Last Supper before Jesus’ trial and execution. But, at the end of the day, to observe a “holy Lent” means to practice our union with Christ. It means to learn how to live a life which is victorious and filled with joy. It means to embark on a journey of forgiveness in which we learn how to be free from guilt and recrimination, in which we can learn how to be a peace with ourselves and each other. It is to practice the weak force of God, the weak force of an insistent love. And when we do that we are learning how to be God’s companions, in suffering and hope. In the name of God, our creator and redeemer. Amen.

The mountaintop and the valley (Luke 9.28-43)

The mountaintop and the valley (Luke 9.28-43)
Eastminster United Presbyterian Church, Transfiguration Sunday C (March 3, 2019)

Tom James
Have you ever been to the mountaintop? I’m not much of a hiker, but when I was a kid, I did a little mountain climbing. Now, this was in North Carolina, and my wife Michelle says there are no mountains there. She spent part of her summers in Colorado, where the mountains are a little more impressive, I’ll admit. But I think there were mountains in North Carolina. Or, at least, my aching feet told me there were by the time I got to the top of one.
For those of you who have followed a trail up steep inclines, often heavily wooded, and then broken through at the last to a clearing, and a view of the valley below, and know that you’ve reached the summit, you know how satisfying it can feel. And, if you are lucky enough to spend some time up there and just take in the sight (my Dad would always say, “Whelp, are you ready to head back down?”), you might be struck by the beauty of it, with the gentle mountain air and the misty clouds, sometimes well below, and the bright sun, and all the lush greenery down in the valley, partly covered with shadows cast by the mountain, and the awesome silence.
I can see why they call a moment of deep religious feeling a “mountaintop” experience because it gives you a sense of the grandeur and beauty of things and puts your little worries and obsessions in a much-needed perspective. The “mountaintop” can also be a time when your thoughts are elevated by some ideal. Martin Luther King, Jr. began one of his last sermons talking about having been to the mountaintop, where he could see across the land and witness the ways in which God was opening the door to desegregation and equality for African-Americans. We also may think of Moses on the mountain top, communing with God and, at the end of his life, looking out on the land of promise, knowing, as Dr. King must have, that he would not get there himself, but believing that his people would, because the promises of God could be trusted.
On the last Sunday before Lent, we traditionally climb the mountain with Jesus, metaphorically speaking, as we read one of the gospel texts that describe how he took a select group of disciples to the top of what would have been for them a “high mountain” and was “transfigured” before them. The story is supposed to remind us of how Moses also went to the mountaintop, and how the glory of God transfigured him, too. For us, it comes just as we are about to enter Lent, when we walk with Jesus, metaphorically speaking, toward Jerusalem, another sort of mountaintop (people would talk about going “up” to Jerusalem because of its elevation) where he will confront the Temple authorities and offend religious leaders and frighten the Roman governor and end up on a cross.
But the disciples who were with Jesus didn’t know anything about what would come after. On the mountaintop, they were awakened from their near slumber to be dazzled and enthused by what they saw. Peter, doing the “Peter” thing as always, let his enthusiasm get the better of him and gave Jesus exactly the wrong advice. “Let’s build some buildings!” “Let’s make a shrine.” “Let’s raise a temple,” or a “sanctuary.” This little detail makes me wonder, by the way, what was going on when it was written down, some decades later. Were the earliest Christian communities, who had been meeting in each other’s homes, thinking about building separate spaces for worship, so that they could have impressive structures like their pagan counterparts, or like the Jewish temple? Did Peter in the story give voice to what Christians were later thinking about? I ask this because, clearly, Christians much later down the road had those conversations. Clearly, Christians throughout history have tried to capture the enthusiasm and the mountaintop excitement of their experience of grace in buildings and structures. As we know, many of our best church buildings were built during a what seemed a high point in American Christianity—when seemingly everybody wanted to be in church, when we seemed to have incredible influence on society, when people and resources were flowing in, when we had to compete with other churches but never with the rest of society for people’s attention on Sundays. And, as we know, most of our buildings across this country have become something to worry about rather than to celebrate. They cost money. They are hard to heat. They keep needing to be repaired or updated. But we hold on to them for dear life. It as if they are a monument to a great moment in the past, but in many cases also a tombstone marking the passing of that moment.
In any case, it turns out that Peter had it wrong. This mountaintop experience wasn’t a place to stay—it wasn’t something to cling to. It wasn’t anything that even had value in itself: it only had value because of what was to come next.
I mentioned, somewhat bitterly, that my Dad was always ready to turn around and head back down the trail as soon as we got to the mountaintop. I would have liked to spend the whole day there! But, of course, he knew that there were other things to do. For him, getting to the top of the mountain was one stage in the hike and not the end of it, one highlight of the day and not the whole day. And, so, for Jesus, the mountaintop and the impressive transfiguration that happened there only had meaning because they were part of a larger story and a longer journey. In other words, the mountaintop had no meaning apart from the valley—where the real ministry happened; and, if the truth be told, where you and I spend most of our lives.
In the valley, we confront sickness. Jesus found a boy there who was mentally ill, we would say today, and a father who was desperate to find help for him. Illness of all kinds is all over the valley, where we frail human beings really live. It is where we struggle with problems, and sometimes with people. It is where we find poverty. It’s where we find abuse, and exploitation, and oppression, and unkindness. It’s also where we find forgiveness, and strength, and courage, and compassion, and heart. After all, what would be the point of those things if we were all basking in the glow on the mountaintop? In the valley, all the resources we have been given to live the Christian life in the real world have to be brought to bear. It is also where you and are confronted not only with our weaknesses but our shortcomings and our failures. It is where we are exposed for being weak in faith, or lacking in compassion, or lazy about justice, or overbearing with our felt wants and needs. The valley is where we find the need to repent, to use an old Christian word that we will hear again during Lent—to turn around and begin moving in the right direction, to forsake exaggerated love of self for the sake of loving our neighbors and loving God.
None of that is very comfortable, of course. I’m with Peter in Spirit—let’s stay on the mountaintop and build a shrine and try to remember how good it feels to bask in the mountain air and the feeling of God’s embrace. Let’s not leave this place and descend back into the realm of human suffering and constant problems and feelings of forsakenness.
But here’s the thing. When the disciples were at the mountaintop, they had an awesome vision but were not at all that awed by it. They were confused and confounded—they were enthused and maybe even made to feel good by what they were seeing and hearing, but it is clear from their actions that they do not know quite what to make of what is happening to them. And, so, Peter tries to fill the awkward emptiness of the moment by trivialities, by being busy doing things that will not advance Jesus’ mission a single inch. It is as they descend to the valley with Jesus, when they witness him confronting human brokenness with the love and power of God, that we read that everyone one is “awed at the greatness of God.”
Seminary professor Claudio Carvalhaes writes: “Unless we get out of the fortress of our worship spaces, and rebuke the unclean spirits of the powers that be, and shed light into the lives of the poor of our communities, we will never know what transfiguration means. Glory will be an unknown word and experience. We can have a sound theology and say that in that passage, Jesus is the point of beginning and end, the past and the future giving weight to our present, the conciliation of opposite poles, the connection between the shadow and the light of God, the incarnation of the most divine glory. However, if in the name and by the grace of God we cannot heal the boys and girls of our own people and give them back to their parents we will never know what transfiguration means, what shared glory looks like and we will never be “astounded at the greatness of God.”[1]
It’s not about our encampments, our structures, our buildings, our places of sanctuary and refuge—our fortresses. The greatness of God is not built to impress in that way. Instead, the greatness of God is what we find when we are on the move, when we descend to the valley of human suffering and need, when we get real and focus with people on what really matters, when we let go of the moments and the memories of past glories just a little, at least enough to awaken to the moment we are in. The greatness of God is God’s power to heal and renew and give hope where there has been none. The greatness of God is not on the mountaintop but in the valley. It’s not behind us, friends, but in front of us. In the name of God, our creator and redeemer. Amen.