It’s hard to compete with Palm/Passion Sunday. And maybe, you shouldn’t.
Have you thought about letting the texts speak for themselves? Let this story simply be? Letting the liturgy do what it does and work as it should? Anything further on your part may very well be overkill – every pun intended. As if you are trying too hard to cover every detail of Holy Week, trying to pack it all in, because you assume that you won’t see many of these folks again until Easter Sunday. That’s why we have Palm/Passion to begin with, right? Our concern that people won’t come to Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, so let’s make sure we cover all the bases, just in case. How to get Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Vigil all in before the women get to the empty tomb.
Don’t try this at home. Not only is it not possible. It’s not necessary.
I suspect that your liturgical and homiletical decisions have already been made at this point. If I am wrong, my main point of advice would be what we suggested on the Sermon Brainwave podcast. Pick a verse from the passage and preach it for all its worth.
Because the hard thing about Palm/Passion Sunday is that there is just too much text. Or as Salieri says to Mozart, just too many notes. What else is there to say?
Maybe don’t try. And admit that you can’t.
Is a sermon necessary? is my question. If so, why? What do you hope to accomplish, to achieve? What can you add to this story, really? But, I get the anxiety because this is what we are trained to do – offer interpretations of texts for specific times, places, people, and purposes. It’s what we are paid to do. It’s what we are called to do. So then, if that’s not what is needed, then what? Rather than leaning into the moment, we control the moment, trying to communicate, persuade, proclaim how important this week is when all we really need to do is to testify.
This week is an opportunity for witness. Put yourself in the story and say this is what I see, what I feel and then ask, how about you? What do you see, feel? Where are you moved? Any attempt to interpret or explain will result in the poignancy of this week being lost. Big time. Because there is no explanation. There is no exegesis that can rescue this moment. There is no doctrine that can give an acceptable account. There is no denominational recourse that makes Holy Week more palatable or acceptable.
So why not just say that and let it be? Let the story do what it intends to do. Let the story be what it has to be. Let the story work on the people in your pews as individually as they are. No one answer will work. No one interpretation will meet all needs. Articulate your personal point of entry and then invite them to imagine their own.
Because if the default is to make Passion Sunday and Holy Week doable, then we will end up reducing wonder to want. Amazement to acceptance. Resistance to recourse. Disbelief to discussion. And then everything we hope for on this Sunday is rather a pedantic roadmap to traverse the week that plots and plods rather than one that invites new routes of discovery.
For Holy Week to work a preacher needs to figure out how to let it work. And then let go. The biblical witnesses suggest that this is no place for statements of certainty. Rather, it is a space for ambiguity. Disappointment. Fear. Contemplation. Anger. Dejection. And there are not enough spaces in our lives that invite such real, visceral, embodied, unchecked, uncensored emotions and reactions to the events of faith.
In the end, I think your parishioners will be grateful. Grateful for your honesty. For your bewilderment. For your willingness to invite questions rather than provide answers. For your commitment to confusion instead of some confession beholden to something outside of what you believe.
This is not to say that you stand up and preach doubt or dejection. It means that you stand up and tell the truth. That you don’t attempt to apply some sort of homiletical bandage. Because if you do, you then communicate that all of this can be fixed. By us. And it can’t. Only God can carry us through to the empty tomb, to the promise of the resurrection.
And so in your confession, this is what you say. “I don’t know what to do with all of this. But God does. I don’t get it but I don’t have to because God does. I don’t want to figure this out. That’s OK. God has.”
And then we let Holy Week be.
“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”
Another grand and glorious verse from John, a Gospel filled to the brim with pithy phrases that end up in contexts and situations far removed from their origins. Yet John 20:21 has found a fitting home outside of its narrative as a verse carved in pulpits around the world. As I noted in my commentary on John 12:20-33, this verse is a summative theology of preaching for the Fourth Gospel. Preaching John means creating an experience of Jesus. It’s that simple. The request of the Greeks voices the desire of every parishioner in the pew — not to be told about Jesus but the desire to encounter Jesus. Too many sermons stop at information. Perhaps this week a Post-It note in your pulpit would be an important reminder of the purpose of preaching — to show them Jesus — particularly when having Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and Easter in clearer view.
Accordingly, for the last Sunday in Lent, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus” is a more than appropriate appeal when bringing Lent to a close. But it’s not a verse only for seeing Jesus in the present passage or only for orienting our vision for the future. To see Jesus also means some retroactive gazing.
What have we seen of Jesus in these last few weeks? What has Jesus revealed about himself to us? Or, in the words of the Fourth Evangelist, how has Jesus made God known (John 1:18)? These kinds of questions can be important in preaching. Questions of hindsight bring perspective to the present. They help us take stock of where we’ve been so as to make sense of what is to come. They invite reflection and deliberation and contemplation, none of which there is enough when it comes to faith. Rehearse the stories. Remember the revelations. Why take the time to do this? Why is all of this important? Because then in our preaching we are modeling a hermeneutic for faith. That a life of faith recalls the past, resides in the present, and rests in the future. That being a believer means, simultaneously, to be an interpreter of our traditions and of our current reality, all for the sake of interpreting the kind of future into which God wants us to live. What have we seen, what do we see, what will we see?
Reflection on what we have seen will help us interpret what we will see. And this is why the request of the Greeks is also a request that should make for a significant cause for pause. Which Jesus do you really want to see? What we might want to see, expect to see, is not always grounded in reality, which is why hindsight is essential. Our myopia is frequently symptomatic of our selected scope of vision, whether it’s a convenient forgetting of the past or a choice to ignore the present.
In this case, a hindsight hermeneutic is also an act in acknowledging the grand vistas that lay claim on any given text. It provides corrective lenses for nearsighted readings. We are never just preaching one verse, one pericope, one story. We are preaching the breadth of the witness to God’s love in the world. We do this by recognizing that to interpret a part means using the whole of a narrative, so that looking back on the first eleven chapters of John and looking forward into the next nine is essential for making sense of chapter twelve. At the same time, we return to the scriptures that informed and shaped the imagination of the New Testament authors as they sought to make sense of God’s activity in Jesus. But a word of warning here — this is not an injunction to bring every text but the Christian sink into a sermon to prove a point. Preachers that provide endless quotes from other parts of Scripture, whether nearby or far back from the Old Testament, are frequently those uncomfortable with the text they have. They will argue that they are letting Scripture interpret Scripture, or make some sort of claim about the importance of canonical criticism.
But, there is a difference between using other parts of Scripture to inform an interpretation of a biblical passage and quoting other biblical passages to avoid the one in front of you.
Worried about being wrong, anxious that our interpretations will be wide of the mark or mistaken, afraid of being accused of heretical leanings, we even use the Bible itself to dodge having to make a clear and concise statement about a text. Why? Because to make memorable proclamation about a text is a vulnerable act. It exposes you for the theology you have. It lays open how Scripture works in your own life. It uncovers your character, for good or for ill. You will be seen. So we lodge generalities about God that save no one or say nothing at all worth remembering. What might all this mean for this last Sunday in Lent?
“Pastor, we wish to see Jesus.” Show them. Show them, big time. Or, to put it another way, “go big or go home.”
As Fred Craddock once noted, “If there is a disease in preaching … it’s not that what the minister says is wrong. It’s that it is just too small.”
John 3:14. Not even a close second to John 3:16 but certainly the reason why these verses from Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus make up the designated Gospel pericope for the fourth Sunday in Lent. Any possible connection to Jesus’ crucifixion will win any contest to be selected as a reading for the Sundays in Lent. A preacher could certainly opt for this route. But great care will be necessary when it comes to what John means when he says “the son of Man must be lifted up” because it’s not just on the cross. Yet, perhaps that is for another column.
Because another preaching challenge that comes with John 3:14 is that two verses later, there’s 3:16. And John 3:16 is perpetually problematic. To preach on this verse will seem like tinkering with constructs of faith so embedded and beholden that a preacher might ignore it all together. Yet, it’s one of those verses that once read out loud, it demands address from the preacher. Otherwise, its misconceptions, misinterpretations, and misuses will abide with and be maintained by our listeners who may really want to believe that God loves the world even though they have been told otherwise.
Statements about this most ubiquitous verse continue to surprise me – from fondness to ambivalence to flat out dislike. Why? Why these kinds of reactions toward what is perhaps the most famous verse in the Bible?
Well, motivations for John 3:16 being one’s favorite bible verse might be somewhat questionable. Does it hang on a wall, appear on a plaque, fly across computer monitors as a screen saver because people really believe God loves the world? Or because they appreciate frequent reminders that they are saved while others are not? Is John 3:16 in peril of losing its voice of promise because rather than being a claim of assurance it’s used as an injunction for judgment? Because rather than being a statement about God’s love for the world it’s a threat for those unwilling to accept God’s love? Because rather than heard as an invitation to participate in spreading God’s love it’s a summons to exclude those we think God does not love?
To say the least, it’s unfortunate when bible verses are taken out of context. And I have a feeling that the Bible doesn’t like it any more than we do.
John 3:16 is first a word to Nicodemus. And Nicodemus, a man, a Pharisee, a leader used to privilege and entitlement needs to hear that God loves the world. And so do the disciples, which is why in the very next chapter Jesus then takes them to the world, to a small town in Sychar, Samaria, so that they can meet who the world is. Because the world may very well be the last place – and the last person – on earth we think God would love.
And further contextual conscientization will keep reading into 3:17-21 where we hear that God became flesh not to condemn the world but to experience life with us. We make John 3:16 words of judgment when we stop reading at the period placed at the end of 3:16; when we ignore what judgment actually means in John’s Gospel, which is not that which we do or God does, but represents your own moment of crisis of whether or not you will choose to enter into the life-sustaining relationship God provides; when we limit salvation to some future guarantee instead of the intimacy God so desires with us here and now.
And so perhaps John 3:16 accords ambivalence as a preacher; or elicits a heavy sigh that embodies your weariness. As if getting through Lent was not enough. Now you have to figure out what to do with John 3:16.
You know, all too well, that this is critical work – preaching on a passage that demands great attention to what it is, what it isn’t, what we we want it to be, or what we think it is. What’s a preacher, then, to do?
As many of you know, one of the greatest preachers and homileticians of the 20th century died this past week, Fred Craddock. I had the joy of meeting him and hearing him preach while I was doing my doctoral work at Emory University where he had been the Bandy Professor of Preaching and New Testament in the Candler School of Theology. Craddock’s words may be helpful this week when considering whether or not to tackle the hard work of preaching a text like John 3:16, “I’m grateful for work more important than how I happen to feel about it on any given day.”
So, we start with anticipating and acknowledging our feelings about what it means to preach on this verse. And in general, I am not sure that we do this enough – admit to ourselves our own ambivalence, uncertainty, even fear when it comes to preaching, especially those verses and passages that we think we should have all figured out, or, that we simply don’t want to tackle, lest we upset some sort of proverbial theological apple cart in our congregation. Take the time to reflect on your own relationship with John 3:16. And then be grateful that you get to enter into the sacred space of figuring out what difference this verse makes, for you and for your congregation, but also for what God is up to.
And then? Perhaps another word of encouragement from Craddock will help, “Preach like you know they almost didn’t come.”
We have them. We inhabit them. But often we do not know what to do with them.
We desperately want to change them, improve them, shrink them, hide them. We want to tighten them, shape them, mold them. We compare ours to others. We describe them with odd categories, like fruit. We analyze them, take them apart, and
we like some parts more than others.
We take them for granted. We look at them in the mirror with disgust or with modest admiration. We keep the lights off so that they cannot be seen. We expose them in ways that leave little to the imagination.
I doubt I am saying anything that you have not felt about your body at some point in your life.
Recently, I attended the visitation and funeral of one of my husband’s best friends from college. They were roommates in college. They went on fishing and hiking trips together with the other “roomies” every summer. They had known each other for 38 years. They shared the same name. He was six days older than my husband. I hadn’t seen him for months and there was very little left of his body. Pancreatic cancer had left an already slender and fit man with only bones and skin. I fear that perhaps we do not realize the beauty of our bodies until our bodies are no longer.
“But he was speaking of the temple of his body.” We know that the circumstances of the temple incident in John are different from the other Gospels. We know the theological claim that Jesus is making in this very different temple skirmish story. And certainly, reflection on or a sermon about any of these points of specificity in John’s version would be worthwhile.
But what I was drawn to in thinking about this column is bodies – the temple of his body. That God chose to localize love in a human body. That God decided becoming human was a good idea.
You see, since God made the decision to be incarnated, it seems to me that God was probably not choosy about bodies. Sure, God became a man. But if we take the incarnation seriously, and that God loves the world, the full expression of human bodies is at stake. Otherwise, incarnation is partial and penultimate. You can’t be partly human, selectively human. If you are human, well then, it means the whole thing.
Why does this matter for you as a preacher? Because when was the last time you thought about how your body expresses the Gospel? How your body communicates the message of your sermon as much as your words? How your body reveals the truth about the truth you preach?
We tend to be so caught up in words. We avoid our bodies with albs. We hide behind pulpits and lecterns, relieved that we only have to figure out what to do with our bodies from the waist up. If you are a female preacher, you’ve decided not to wear a cincture, lest someone notice that you have a waist and breasts.
Or, if you are not behind a pulpit, when was the last time you thought about what to do with your body? Do you pace? Flail around with your arms? Your body is who you are. Your body communicates your sermon as much as the words you so carefully craft.
What does this all mean? Maybe it has nothing to do with your sermon this week. Or, maybe it has everything to do with your preaching. That you call attention to the fact that bodies matter, in all shapes and sizes. That who your people are as witnesses to the God’s love in the world is not just about the words they say. That actually, their calling is not just telling people about Jesus but embodying Jesus for others; how not just your words and actions but your actual body communicates the love of God, the presence of God.
Bodies matter. Your body matters. Incarnational preaching is not just talk or voice or speech. It is how your body embodies the truth of the Gospel; how your body has felt what it feels like to be experience grace upon grace.
Lent will be a body anointed, a body beaten, a body on the cross, a body laid in a tomb. What does that feel like? The only way we can get at that is to embrace our own bodies. Lent, Easter, even theology, cannot be fully captured or experienced in our heady confessions, our lofty logic, or our need for knowledge. Lent invites a deep reflection on the role of bodies in faith, in theology, in life.
In the end, Jesus is saying that his body is the location of God. Yours is, too. It has to be. God is counting on it because God loves the world. Jesus is counting on it because his incarnation came to an end on that cross. This week, embody your body. Explore how your body ministers as much as your sermon manuscript. Imagine how your body preaches as much as your words. Because then the Word becomes flesh – again and again.
I have to admit. I was a bit baffled this week by the relationship between the Gospel and the first and second lessons. Not that we have to make a connection every time, that’s for sure. But you never know what interpretive gem might surface when you put texts in conversation, which is why the lectionary frequently fascinates me.
But I stuck with it for a while, and here’s what I started seeing. Abraham and Sarah? To what extent they “deny themselves” just as Jesus asks. But it’s not a denial of the self. It’s a denial of remaining by themselves. That is, they deny a life that is autonomous, secured, enclosed, safe, and just the two of them, for a life that propels them into relationship – with God and with a future realized by abounding relationship.
I wonder if this is exactly what Jesus means.
Because I have to say “deny yourselves” has always been problematic for me. It rubs against my incarnational theology that says who I am matters to God. And Jesus wants me to deny that? No thanks. I’ve worked really hard to be me. I’m not giving that up now. And denial is ever so popular during Lent. So we jump on the denial bandwagon and give up all and sundry aspects of our lives that actually might simply give us joy.
Moreover, I think way too much of that kind of denial happens in church, especially for preachers. You know what I mean. To be someone or something you are not. To eschew your truth for the sake of the truth of the Gospel. What do you deny about yourself for the sake of your ministry? And that whole business of “getting out of the way” when you preach to let the Word of God be heard? That’s a load of crap. If God wanted us to get out of the way, God wouldn’t have decided to become human in the first place.
So, what if we take deny “yourself” totally literally? Hang in with me here.
That is, you deny your selfhood when it rescinds relationship. You deny your autonomy when it refuses community. You deny your individualism when it rejects intimacy.
To “deny yourself and take up your cross” invites us into what the cross can also mean – not just death and suffering, but God choosing human relationships. The cross represents God’s commitment to humanity. The cross represents what we do when we are not in relationship with the other and think only for ourselves. Because to be ourselves is to be certain of our connectedness.
I think that’s what Jesus is saying. At least today I do.
Because Lent cannot be just about yourself. Somehow, you have defined your identity as that which is connected to Christ and to a community of believers. We don’t do Lent alone. Lent is this radical communal experience in many ways. People willing to wear crosses on their foreheads when buying groceries. People willing to talk about their Lenten disciplines – out loud, even to strangers.
Why? Because we realize it’s not just about our own selves. Lent is a denial of the self in the best way, the self that refuses community. The self that thinks it can survive on its own. The self that rejects the deep need of humanity – belonging.
Jesus’ charge is not a demand to deny your true self. It’s an invitation to imagine that your self needs the other. Desperately. Intimately. Because this is what to be human is all about – intimacy. Belonging. Relationship. Attention. To what extent we barely know ourselves without all of the above in our lives, without others in our lives acknowledging, regarding who we are. We can’t be ourselves on our own. And when we do, it is a self-absorbed existence. It is to be become narcissistic in its truest form, where those around you are only pawns to placate your self-perceived power and importance.
Let’s face it. This is easy to do as a pastor, as a preacher. And this is where a lot of pastors and preachers go array. The self-talk of autonomous importance, self-sustained life, and power-driven ideals. And where does this end up? Broken communities and congregations. And for what? Your own sense of authority? Perhaps this is one aspect of “deny yourself.” The sense that your own authority trumps that of your people, the Scripture, and our God.
And we have seen it. Perhaps even done it. So here is our chance. To deny the impulses that demand reliance on ourselves alone and seek the help of others. To deny the expectations that suggest ministry is a singular existence that works out of some sort of skewed assertions that we have all the answers. To deny the temptations that try desperately to convince us of our own worth without the call of God we initially heard.
The denial of self? It’s embracing the truth that you can’t live in this world, you can’t live your life, without your self being in relationship.
A different kind of denial indeed.
The first Sunday in Lent is always Jesus’ temptation. Always. But when was the last time you noticed just how brief Mark’s temptation story is? It’s virtually non-existent. A summary only. To the point. No details really. Just that it happened. One could say, and you probably have, “Well, that’s Mark for you. The Reader’s Digest Condensed Version” of the Gospel.” Of course, Mark’s version of Jesus’ temptation would be abbreviated!
It’s kind of hard to preach on the temptation of Jesus when there’s not much to go on. Sure, you could bring in Matthew and Luke, but that’s Matthew and Luke. What if we take Mark seriously? Mark – why so short? Not important? Should we be paying attention to something else?
Maybe temptation doesn’t matter as much to Mark, or it matters differently. So then, what does matter? In asking that question it appears that I am giving more weight to the baptism of Jesus which is as brief as his temptation. Which wins? If you choose temptation, then you have to read forward in Mark. What tempts Jesus? What tempts us? Yet Jesus’ baptism totally matters for Jesus’ temptation, as you know. God rips apart the heavens. The Spirit descends. The Spirit enters into Jesus. It seems that no resistance of temptation is successful without the presence of God. And therein lies our promise. Not necessarily that we have the power to defend and deflect temptation. Not that we are capable of taking on Satan in the wilderness, or at least, I know I am not. Not so much that baptism is our guarantee that will shore up the walls to keep out that which seeks to threaten our belief, our trust, our relationship with God.
It’s that now, all battles with evil, with that which tempts us, the game is changed because God is present. We are not asked to do this out on our own, which can be one major misinterpretation of giving up things for Lent. God tears away our every attempt to say, “While I appreciate your help, God, I’ve got this. I can figure it out.” We don’t want help. We don’t want to ask for help. Help is a sign of insecurity, exposes weakness, but more so, when it comes to issues of faith, intimates our inability to thwart sin. It seems we are even good at pretense before God.
But that’s where Jesus’ temptation in Mark should shatter our carefully constructed faith worlds, or at least the ones we create for the eyes of others only. Jesus goes into the wilderness, not with the conviction of success but only because he knows that God has chosen to rip to shreds any boundary, any structure, any ecclesiology, any denomination, any doctrine that would separate him from God. He enters the wilderness only with the promise of God’s presence. Not with fighting skills, not with self-help strategies, not with techniques for passing the tests, but only his personal knowledge because of God’s direct words to him alone that God will be there. To preach the temptation of Jesus in Mark means that our preaching task is not to offer a list of temptations that tempted Jesus that then we should be able to deflect. Really? We are talking about Jesus, after all.
To preach the temptation of Jesus in Mark is to call attention to our greatest temptation – the temptation to think that God is not present.
We are tempted to believe that God is absent. God has given up. Withdrawn. Why? Well, you name it. A whole host of reasons. Need any prompts here? Our parishioners sure don’t. They are fully aware that they are not worthy of God’s love which we tend to perpetuate during Lent. They are fully aware, as are we if we are honest, of those excruciating times when God is silent.
To preach Mark 1:9-15 as the first Sunday in Lent is to say clearly, unapologetically, without any doubt, that God is present in it all. We will not have the same temptations as Jesus. And naming Jesus’ temptations as some sort of comfort in our experience of the same implies that we can get through it, whatever “it” may be. But, we are talking about Jesus. JESUS!! The point of contact is not necessarily that Jesus was tempted yet without sin. That’s not helpful. I can’t be Jesus. No, way, no how. But, I can look at Jesus’ temptation, whatever it is, whatever it turns out to be, and say, God was there.
God is present. In other words, what if we focus less on listing all that tempts us, less on some pep talk that we can deny all those so-called things that seek to get us to craft our golden calves, less on giving up the so-called temptations of our lives, and focus on true denial of that which tempts us the most.
Oh wow, preachers. The beginning of Lent. Are you ready? I am imagine you are. Your Lenten theme is in place. Small groups are lined up. Soup suppers are in control. Dramas are written. You are READY!
Yet, when I sat down to write this column for Ash Wednesday, I was reminded of a cartoon. The first picture/caption is “Christ is Risen!” with the pastor decked out in all of the expected Easter regalia, at least in my denomination – alb, white stole, cross – and surrounded by lilies and white paraments. In the next frame, we see the pastor collapsed in a heap with the caption, “And the clergy is dead.”
Is that ever the truth! Lent is hard. That’s probably the understatement of the year, right? It’s a sprint to Easter. You know that. But how do you get from here to there, and maybe without collapsing in a heap?
Recently I was asked by the marketing department of Luther, “what does Lent mean to you?” I fear they may never ask me again to respond to their questions. Because here’s what I said about Lent – “If it means giving up things, constant reminders of how worthless and temporary I am, any glorification of suffering, then it means nothing to me. If it means embracing the importance of self-reflection when it comes to your identity as a disciple, who you believe Jesus to be, what (if anything) the cross really means to you, how you understand the meaning of the resurrection, and that you take the resurrection forward to the meaning of the ascension, then Lent has meaning to me.”
Do you feel that Lent needs to conform to ecclesiological and liturgical determinations? Do you feel obliged to present and preach Lent in a certain way, with a certain ethos, so as to create a sense of appropriate contrition and confession? The right mood of penitence and remorse?
What does Lent mean to you? If you haven’t answered this question in recent years, then maybe that’s why Lent seems less than appealing. But it seems worth contemplating, especially when we are asking our parishioners to do the same.
The goal of Lent is not to get through it. What does Lent need to be for you this year? I wonder how your members would respond, to hear from you what Lent means for you, what you are doing, or not doing, as the case may be, to mark this liturgical season or to make these forty days meaningful.
I have a feeling that they would be relieved. “Wait. I don’t have to berate myself with my inadequacies? I don’t have to think of myself as a worthless soul, whose only redemptive value is in what God sees in me? Wait, I don’t have to give up all kinds of things, things that actually give me joy? Maybe I could embrace things, do more of the things that matter to me?” This could be a different kind of Lent.
You, we, model Lent for those to whom we minister. I get that many of you will read this and say, well, that what’s Lent is all about. It’s about discipline. Determination. Denial. Then maybe you will just stop reading. That’s ok. But for those of you who wonder, can Lent be different? Can Lent be about…?
How you preach Ash Wednesday and this Lent, indeed sets the tone for imagination about this season in the church year. What your parishioners hear what Lent means for you and not a third person, ecclesial explanation of what Lent should mean, could make a difference. What if you invite them into their own imagination for and commitment to this season that might be shaped by their own place in life and place in faith and not what they perceive the church needs them to think?
I wonder. If you actively engage and invite those in your church to imagine Lent in the way they need to, maybe that will give you permission to do the same.
This season needs to be about you as much as it needs to be about those to whom you minister. Because as soon as you detach, as soon as you offer a third person, “This is what we should do for Lent” your people will say, “well, why?” Can you answer that question? If you can’t, then rethink what you are doing for the next six weeks and what Lent means for you.
Preach Lent. Preach the season. Preach the lessons through the lens of liturgical determinations. But then, and maybe before, answer yourself, “why Lent, why the season, what difference does it make?”
Because then those listening to your sermons will actually hear you and say, “Wow. Maybe this really matters. It doesn’t have to matter in the way it matters to Pastor… But now I can imagine for myself what it matters to me.
And then maybe, when you arrive at Easter Sunday, you will recall the cartoon I mentioned above and say, “Actually I am not dead. In fact, I think I have been resurrected.”
The last week of January, Luther Seminary hosted its annual Midwinter Convocation – a popular event for many, but especially alums. For the first time this year there was an opportunity to have breakfast with the faculty. At my table, one attendee had not missed a Convo in 48 years! This year’s topic was “Religious but not spiritual.” Why am I telling you all of this? Because in reflecting on how to preach the meaning of the Transfiguration, I was struck by the fact that at the heart of the whole conversation around religious but not spiritual, spiritual but not religious is the desire to experience transfiguration here and now, regardless of the terminology we choose to use. In the end, we want a sense of the transcendent, the numinous, the holy, something outside of ourselves that is the cause for awe and wonder.
Whether spiritual or religious, either way, there is a need to know transfiguration in our lives.
That’s what Peter wants, right? I am not so sure that he wants to keep Jesus and his friends in tents forever. Peter wants to encapsulate the experience. He wants to capture the feeling.
Transfiguration matters, it seems. It’s not just a convenient event to mark the Sunday that bridges Epiphany and Lent. It’s not just a bizarre story that might cause some Christian embarrassment.
We need transfiguration.
What if we take Jesus out of the picture? Then we realize that this story is not just Jesus’ revelation of his glory but the fact that what we wish for is our own sense of glory. Not in a narcissistic, look at me, kind of way. But a recognition of the deep human need for transformation, change, conversion, makeover, alteration, metamorphosis.
We need transfiguration as much as Jesus needed to be transfigured.
Liturgically, biblically, christologically, the transfiguration is a turning point, a transition from one way of seeing Jesus to another. Its’ not just about securing the Jesus of the future or holding on to the Jesus of the past but points to the real human struggle with change, with transformation.
Transformation is hard. Change is hard. Traversing from one place to another, from one way of being to another? It’s easier to stay the same. Stay the course. Convince yourself that what you’ve always known is satisfactory and sufficient even when you have glimpsed what could be.
So we just sit. We wait. For what? The right time? The right place? All of our questions answered? Everything figured out? All of our proverbial ducks in a row?
This is why the transfiguration rocks. It just shows up. There is no right time. It just happens. Now what? No amount of planning can predict the right kind of change. No amount of preparation can prepare you for an altered reality or an altered perspective. No amount of strategizing can make you ready for a transfiguration to be truly a transfiguration.
I think that Peter’s issue is not so much about holding Jesus to his expectations. Nor is it capturing the moment.
I think Peter’s issue is the realization that if Jesus changes, then Peter will be changed as well. “I cannot be the same. I will also be transfigured, transformed. And maybe I don’t want that. So, let’s pitch some tents, keep things the way they are, hunker down, and ride it out. Maybe the whole thing will just pass by. I can come out of my tent and all will still be the same. Jesus will be the same. I will still be the same.”
So that’s why the Transfiguration. Jesus gets this. What will it be that gets you to move, to come out of your tent, or maybe even not to want pitch one in the first place?
Rather than blame Peter for his myopia, maybe we admit our own. I am guessing that not much about human nature has changed in the two thousand years since Jesus’ earthly ministry. Transfiguration means exposure. I mean, look at Jesus. You can’t miss him. Vulnerability is less than comfortable but it seems absolutely essential for life and thus for a life of faith. At least Jesus seems to think so. When we exchange vulnerability for certainty all we do is live the lie that authenticity does not matter. That the truth of who we are can be absconded by our denominational structures, doctrinal commitments, and dogmatic insistences, that is, our tents that we secure, pounding stake by stake into the ground.
Tents are not just about shelter. They repel the forces of nature. They keep out that which might harm. They keep as much in as they keep out.
And Transfiguration will rip our tents into shreds.
Transfiguration means change. We think we welcome change, but when it actually happens, we adopt stances of resistance and rejection. Or convince ourselves that the change can wait. That it really isn’t necessary. That the time is not right. That the problems that will ensue are not worth the result of living into who we really are.
Transfiguration means a new way of seeing the world. And replacing the lenses of our lives is a lot more complicated than picking out new fashionable frames.
Because at the heart of the matter is that transfiguration not only signals change, but alters life’s direction. It certainly did for Jesus. And when that happens, well, no tent in the world is going to give you the security you think you want or need. Because when we shore up the shelters that protect us from harm we also run the risk of keeping out that which is so very, very good.
Dear Karoline: I follow your posting since you took over from David Lose and thank you for your regular weekly powerful insights, particularly this week! You made it simple to grasp and with hope.Many thanks for inspiring us week in and week out.
Full disclosure. I do not like hockey, I really, really don’t. This coming from a Minnesota resident whose 13-year old son is a big time hockey player. My reason? I am a native Californian. Need more reasons? I don’t get it. I’m not a big sports fan. And then there’s this: I just think that if it takes 45 minutes to put stuff on your body to protect yourself from serious injury, well, maybe that’s something you should not be doing in the first place. Also, being in the warming room, locker room, whatever you want to call it, helping my son get on the gear and lace up the skates, here’s the thing, there’s simply not enough deodorant in the world to make that smell go away. And then after the game, the gear and the boy get in my car.
What am I doing here? I don’t like hockey. I’m freezing my you-know-what off even in an indoor ice rink and not even my venti nonfat no-foam latte from Starbucks can help.
But there I am. As many games as I can attend, swearing I would never do this, but screaming with the rest of parents, “Get in there, Stellan! Go for the puck! Ice it!” like my son could even hear me. And like I even know what I am saying. And here’s the weird thing. I am actually now watching the games and get some things. And I’ve started to realize, wow, this is a really hard sport. This takes a lot of skill. It’s a fight for the puck at every turn. For all intents and purposes, this is exciting! Yet, at the same time, I’m watching my son’s head hit the ice, a lot of very sharp skates coming dangerously close to his face, and wondering if the gear that took 45 minutes to put on will really protect him. Really. And I think concussions. And CTE. And checking next year.
What am I doing here?
This is the question you ask when you are called back to yourself.
You see, hockey reminds me who I am. Yes. I am a preacher, a teacher of preachers. A scholar. An author. A theologian. And I spend a lot of time doing and being all of those things. And maybe too much time. Because I am also a mom.
What am I doing here? Maybe this was the question Simon’s mother-in-law asked when she first realized she was healed.
The healing of Simon’s mother-in-law is a classic healing story. It’s all fine and good. It’s what Jesus does. It’s what he’s good at. But there is something sort of disturbing about this story that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with healing. “Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.” What? She’s healed so that she can serve? Whom? Did she want to? That’s all she could do? Didn’t she have any other aspirations? If you are brought back from the edge, from almost death, or from the brink of what you thought your life had to be, shouldn’t there be something else for you, some sort of new vocation, new career, new identity? And she served them? As if that was what she was expected to do. As if that was the only thing she thought she could do. As if that was the only thing she could do?
But, what if the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law was bringing her back to be the mother she always was and that she always wanted to be? And in being brought back to who she was, she became a disciple, called to minister, to serve, like the angels did for Jesus in the wilderness and like the Son of Man, who did not come to be served but to serve?
Have you ever felt like God has brought you back from the brink…to yourself? That you were called back from a place that was not fully you, to be you?
Jesus lifted her up. What if resurrection is being raised up to be who you always were and were always meant to be? That it won’t be hilltop houses, driving 15 cars, or bathrooms you can play baseball in (Rockstar, Nickelback) but the radical, emotional, incredible feeling of being you. That being raised up is not just some sort of spiritual future but your present reality, here and now, to live you. Your mind, spirit, body, everything together, everything that you were always meant to be. The story of Simon’s mother-in-law tells us that God does not call us to be something we are not but is in the business of restoring us to who we really are.
Of course, most of the time it’s easier to live on the brink, to surround yourself with people and projects and performances that allow you to pretend this is you, that let you avoid the feelings and frustrations and fears that come with acknowledging what is important in your life. It is so hard to live who you are. To paraphrase one of my favorite quotes, “The world is full of people who will go their whole lives and not actually live one day. I do not intend on being one of them.”
I think a lot of us spend a good part of our lives living on the periphery of ourselves.
The healing of Simon’s mother-in-law, and I so wish she had a name, is God being, living who God is. God called Jesus to be who he was. That’s what the incarnation is all about. Jesus didn’t go around pretending to be something that he wasn’t. “Please, please, let this cup pass. My God, my God, why have you forsaken ME?” are not laments about what should be but the truth about what is. Being human is to what God committed God’s self and therefore, being who we are is what God wants us to be. God brings us back from the brinks of our lives, from despair, from disease, from desperation, to live. Because then, maybe, we will actually know, feel, and get that we are a part, that God needs us to be a part, of what’s at stake for God when God decided to become one of us.
Jesus will take you by the hand. God will raise you up. When you are brought back from the edge, from the brink, your question will be that of Simon’s mother-in-law, “What am I doing here?” What will your answer be? “I am ___________.” That’s who God wants me to be. This is who I am.