Tell Everyone

(A sermon for Transfiguration A   February 3, 2008    2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9)

I don't do a lot of instant messaging, but there are a few friends I keep up with via Google Chat. Recently the "smiley" feature has been improved, and I suddenly saw myself looking at a square smiley in response to something I typed that was well-meant, but not so smart. My friend was sending me a “block-head!”

And as I read this week’s gospel lesson, I wanted to send Peter one of those smiling blockheads. There he is, up on the mystical mountain with his friends and his teacher, and they are in the middle of an amazing spiritual experience, a manifestation of Elijah and Moses, the transfiguring of Jesus who is suddenly shining like the sun and dressed in "dazzling white."

Then Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." (Matthew 17:4, NRSV)

No matter which version of this story I read, no matter which gospel, this is the idea that grabs me. In the midst of all this spooky revelation, and there is more to come, Peter is trying to make it concrete.

How human! How Peter-like! How block-headed!!! And yet who can blame him for wanting to stay where heavenly lightning seems to be striking?

Except that just a moment later he will be cowering on the ground with his friends after hearing the voice of God:

While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!" When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. (Matthew 17:5-6)

Well, who wouldn't be? We want a revelation from God, right up until we get one, usually. We're on the edge of something marvelous, we have a sense that THE TRUTH WILL BE REVEALED, and then we get more than we could have imagined, more than we are prepared to take, to hear, to see, to metabolize.
And so I picture them with knees of jelly, those disciples, as they were coming down the mountain, stomachs astir, minds trying desperately to grasp the details that we know someone held onto, because this story became part of our tradition. If I had been among them, I'm sure I would have wanted to tell someone, everyone, about it, to be sure I had not lost my mind! Surely Peter, James and John felt the same way.

But that is not to be, and this is one of the points of this story that scholars perhaps prefer to discuss, because it's less mystical:

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, "Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead." (Matthew 17:9)

Tell no one. Tell no one. Poor Peter, ready to develop the mountaintop with retreat homes for long-lost prophets! Tell no one.

This had to be hard for Peter, especially when we consider that of all the disciples we hear the most from him. He was clearly a talker, and I think we can feel pretty certain that he transmitted many of the stories we know about Jesus, complete with not-always-brilliant and occasionally-even-blockheaded remarks he made himself. He must have known how to communicate with people, one of those outgoing guys who know how to tell a story other people will remember.

Today’s passage from 2nd Peter is a testimony to the Transfiguration, and the whole book is filled with Hellenistic rhetorical flourishes that scholars doubt would have been part of the patois of a Galilean fisherman. Since it is unlikely that Peter would have received a Greek education, we believe the epistles in his name were written to tell his story and give his point of view, likely by a later follower. It was not considered wrong to do that kind of thing in the first century. It was a compliment to the person who could not, for whatever reasons, write the story down. And recording Peter’s stories would have seemed the obvious thing to do for a follower who wanted to make the excitement of the Transfiguration both palpable and certain for other Christians.

Because it’s not a story we would be inclined to believe without an eyewitness, is it?

Tell no one. Tell no one.

There are times when I wish something as blindingly obvious as the Transfiguration would happen to me, to reassure me that I am on the right track.

Most of the time our confirmation comes in more muted form: a sense that we have it right, the affirmation of a trusted friend, the assent of a mentor or teacher. In a church community we bring groups of people together to try and sort out what to do next, how to serve God’s purpose in our particular time and place. We practice discernment, a funny combination of conversation and prayer and action, waiting to see what feels right and what does not work.

When we have a big decision to make we want the clouds to part and the heavenly choir to sing and point fingers in the right direction. I am thinking of our search committee, engaged in a process that is one part due diligence and one part lightning strike! How do they weigh one against the other? Well, they tell no one, first of all! And they pray, and so do we, trusting that the Holy Spirit will guide them, gently.

But that day on Mount Hermon was none-too-gentle. And some moments are too uncanny to be shared right away. They need to be told in their proper time, after they are seasoned in us.

Tell no one, Jesus said, but he added a caveat: "Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead."

All the things we know about Jesus would be different without the Resurrection. That moment lay ahead, and it would be the key to understanding everything about him. Peter and James and John got a preview, but even they did not really grasp what had happened, yet. It is only with the perspective of time that the polished version of the story appears, with its graceful language and its certain tone.

Peter waited and told no one. And although he had been to that mountain with Jesus and had seen Moses and Elijah, and been knocked to his knees by an awareness of God’s presence, Peter still managed to mess things up, denying his connection to Jesus at the moment of crisis. But he got his right mind back again, when the Resurrection had taken place and the fear of Good Friday was behind him, he told everyone. And then he finally had a chance to make something out of the stories of his time with Jesus. He used them to build not a booth or a shelter, but a church, a community of believers trying to follow in the way of Jesus.

In the end, Peter told everyone, although the telling cost him his life.

Tell everyone. Tell everyone.

“Tell no one” is almost more comfortable, isn’t it?

We are still telling the stories today, reading them and trying to understand them, putting ourselves in the places of the disciples and wondering what it might have been like to walk with Jesus. We puzzle as they did over what Jesus meant, or we shift in discomfort when the obvious meaning asks more from us than we feel prepared to give. And in the moments of mystery? Ah! In those moments we find the inspiration to take on challenges, just as Peter did. He came back from the worst sort of failure to be the best kind of faithful.

And that is the Good News, my friends. We don’t have to be perfect to share the story of Jesus. Even a blockhead could tell everyone. Amen.


What We Leave Behind

(If you've been to the blog this week, you'll notice the first part is lifted almost whole from Monday's gospel reflection.)
A sermon for Epiphany 3A (January 27, 2008), particularly Matthew 4:12-23

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea for they were fishermen. And he said to them, "Follow me, and I will make you fish for people." Immediately they left their nets and followed him.

As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. (Matthew 4:18-22)

Immediately, they left—

After a bit of a nightmare about moving, it's on my mind how difficult it is to leave a place, usually. My parents have been gone for 10 and almost 15 years, but I still dream from time to time about having to sort out their household, and in every dream I am on a deadline.

James and John, immediately they left, and followed him.

Early in the week I dreamt I was with younger versions of my children, and we had to leave the place we were living, and we had to be out by a certain time which was only minutes away, and there were still so many things to pack.  The task felt similar to Cinderella's assignment to sift through the ashes and pick out the lentils her stepmother has emptied there. What did we really need? How would we carry it all? And what would happen to the things we must leave behind?

What did we really need? When you are moving, there is more to it, usually, than what you need. There are things you want as well, and in my dreams there are often sentimental items that need special packing materials. Do I need those things? Or the feelings that go along with them? Probably not, but the thought of being cut off from them, the fear of it, generally plays an important part in those dreams.

How would we carry it all? In my dream, there was no truck or van. We seemed to be leaving with only what we could carry. In that case, there was no doubt, we could not bring it all with us. Toys and small objects and clothes not on our backs would be left behind as surely as large pieces of furniture. I wondered what would happen to them, considered the position of the landlord, or whatever person might come in after us, left with the mess of our lives, unpacked and unsorted.

Zebedee stood in the boat, alone, with the half-mended nets.

Where were we going? It wasn't clear in the dream, and it wasn't clear to James and John, either. Did one of them feel the impulse more strongly and the other follow him more than Jesus? Had they had it with Dear Old Dad, and were they looking for an opportune moment to flee? Or did they truly feel the same calling in the same moment with identical intensity?

We don't know. We only know they left. Immediately.

If you are like me, you fear their choice and envy it at the same time. Most of us stay behind in the unsorted rooms, at least on the physical plane, but the inner journey is open to us. Taking it may not necessitate abandoning the family business or leaving your mother's collection of painted china behind, but it might. You just don't know. And perhaps that is the scariest part of all.

Unless you consider this part: you might be Zebedee. And I can't imagine a lonelier guy in the whole world then Zebedee when James and John immediately left.  "Left" and "flee" easily mis-type as "felt" and "feel." How do you feel if you put yourself in Zebedee's place?

As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

In the text, even the boat gets priority.

It’s very exciting to be the leaver, the one going on to new opportunities, new friends, new surroundings. It’s pretty gloomy to be the one left behind.

I think there are relatives in Virginia who have never quite forgiven me for moving to Maine, although I have been here for over 20 years. My departure seemed like a rejection of the home place and the home people. And if we take the perspective of the young person, if we remember the time when we were ready to fly, we may be inclined to roll our eyes.

But when we are the outgrown or the leftover, or at least seem to represent them, it doesn’t feel so good.

What did Zebedee represent, in the boat?

James and John lived in a culture where there was no doubt every son would be part of the family business. There father fished, and so would they. To go off on their own, as young people almost invariably do now, would have been unthinkable, a rejection not only of their parents but of their community and cultural norms. Daughters married, if their fathers arranged it, and they became as indispensably part of their husbands’ families as sons were of their parents’.

And if you strayed from the cultural norms, you could not come back.

I’m not sure we understand how complete a breach leaving home was to them, but remember the story of the Prodigal Son and you may gain some insight. No one expected the father to receive his son *as a son* again. Even the son hoped only to be received as a servant. Roles were strictly understood, parts played as expected, or the security of family life, of having a name and place in society, would likely be lost forever.

That may sound foreign to us, but in churches we tend to live that way even now. We want to do things the same way over and over again, and that is where we find our family security. As the old joke goes, the real seven last words are these, “We’ve never done it that way before!”

We maintain our lives together through our habits, our practices, our decorations and our schedules. Many churches live like the people in sepia-tinted Victorian photographs, although the world has progressed to digital frames that display multiple pictures. We remain in the boat and watch others leave, gradually receding into the distance.

Immediately, they left—that phrase comes back again and again, doesn’t it? I fear at midlife I identify too strongly with Zebedee. My older children stand poised on the edge of adulthood, and even my younger child seems quite grown-up. When I embark on a journey, do I spend too much time planning what I will bring with me? Which coat? Which scarf? Which bracelets and earrings? Would it really matter if I left them behind?

And yet, it was not too many years ago that I sat on a little stretch of beach at Boothbay Harbor with my own mother and told her I wanted to go to seminary. She discouraged me, and I told her, “I can’t not do it.”

I can’t not do it, I said. The kingdom of heaven had come near, you see, in one of its many forms, and I felt a call to go, no matter how inconvenient it might have seemed to others. And it surely did.

It’s not just possible but almost certainly true that everywhere we turn the Kingdom of God is coming near, just as it did on that long ago day in Galilee, when Peter and Andrew and James and John dropped their nets and followed Jesus. What are the nets that we hold too tight? What might we need to drop in order to leap out of the boat?

It might be an old way of thinking, a long-lasting attitude of discouragement, a misplaced sense of duty or an underlying fear of change. Who would we be if…who would we be if we left immediately? And what would become of what we leave behind?

Jesus doesn’t spend any time talking about that last question in this early part of the gospel, but he will address it all the way to Jerusalem. He brings good news, proclaims release of the captives, heals the sick and shines a light in the darkness. And so we leave behind captivity and ill spirits and the darkness of feeling separated from a distant and invisible God.

Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

I feel certain that had Zebedee wanted, he might have come along, too. No one is left behind by Jesus. He is calling all of us to follow, telling us the Kingdom of Heaven is near. Amen.