by Rev. Robin Bartlett
I bet you thought today was just an ordinary Valentine’s Day, but in the Christian Church, today is Transfiguration Sunday. Happy Transfiguration Sunday, all you lovebirds! Most Christians probably don’t even realize that this is a “thing”…that this Transfiguration story gets told every year on the Sunday before Lent in Christian churches across America. No one at Walmart even wishes you a “Happy Transfiguration Sunday.” I call it the War on Transfiguration.
The Transfiguration takes place on a mountain, as so many of the most miraculous, God-soaked events in the Bible do.
Patti Griffin wrote the song Kate just sang. She wrote "Up to the Mountain" for Dr. Martin Luther King, based on the prescient "Mountaintop speech” he gave right before he died, recalling the words of the prophet Moses.
“We’ve got some difficult days ahead,” King told an overflowing crowd in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 3rd, 1968, where the city’s sanitation workers were striking. “But it really doesn’t matter to me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop … I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”
Make no mistake about this: Dr. King was not the vaunted hero he is now. Listening to him meant asking for trouble. Listening to Dr. King meant crossing boundaries. Following him was dangerous. He was, in fact, one of the most hated men in America the year that he died, with a 75% disapproval rating in polls. Less than 24 hours after giving the mountaintop speech, Dr. King was assassinated.
When I’m tired and despairing about the world as it is, I play this song. I imagine singing it to Dr. King. I imagine Dr. King singing it to Moses. I imagine Jesus singing it to God: the Father he called “Daddy.”
“Sometimes I just lay down, no more can I do. But then I go on again, because you asked me to.”
Here’s what we know from the biblical prophets, from Dr. King, from Jesus: We will get to the Promised Land. It may not be in our lifetimes. But we keep going on again, because God asks us to. We hear his sweet voice, come and then go, telling us softly God loves us so.
There’s a reason God is often speaking to people on the tops of mountains. Sometimes like the disciples, we need to be up high to see. We need a revelatory experience to appreciate who God is. We need to see a vision of the Realm of God; the Kingdom of Heaven; the promised land. We need to know both who to listen to and what God’s voice sounds like.
We need to be reminded that though it may be dangerous to follow Love’s voice, it is the only way.
In our scripture from Mark, Jesus wanted his friends to get a glimpse of the promised land. So he asked three of his friends, Peter, James and John to follow him up to the top of a mountain to pray. These three disciples have been following Jesus around for quite awhile, and he’s given them lots of detailed instructions about what they are supposed to do to manifest God’s love in the world. Right before their mountaintop moment, in fact, Jesus told them that anyone who wants to save their lives will deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him. Perhaps he took them up there because he really needed God’s help to drive that message home.
As he was praying, a grand supernatural event occurs, and Jesus’ appearance changes. He is bathed in a warm, white light, and he is transfigured—before them. Suddenly, Elijah and Moses appear in the clouds. Peter, James and John had been about to fall asleep, but luckily they stayed awake for this moment. They were terrified and amazed.
God’s voice booms out “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.”
“Listen to him?” They think. “Sounds easy enough.”
“It is good to be here,” they say to Jesus. “We like hanging out with you like this, chillin’ out with Moses and Elijah and God.” They say, “let us make three places for each of you to live, and we’ll just hang out here on this mountain forever, listening to you.”
I’m sure it was good to be there—far above the hot mess down below. Up there, Peter, James and John could just worship their Lord. They could listen to his stories, sing some Christian rock, put up their Jesus hands and sway: “my God is an awesome God”….feeling blissful and above it all FOREVER. As long as they didn’t have to go back down the mountain where it was people-y. As long as they didn’t have to get their hands dirty, or talk to folks they disagreed with, or touch people that grossed them out, or otherwise risk their lives or change their firmly-held beliefs, or lose their 401Ks.
Unfortunately for them, Jesus made them leave.
It turns out that “listening to him” didn’t mean gathering up his words like golden nuggets and using them later out of context as a weapon against other people. Listening to him didn’t mean worshipping him on a mountaintop and shutting out the rest of the world. Listening to him meant following him down the mountain the next day. Listening to him meant listening to the fathers who are begging, “heal my son.” Listening to Jesus meant casting out the demons that threaten to swallow up a faithless and perverse generation.
Make no mistake about this: Jesus was not the vaunted hero he is now. Listening to Jesus meant asking for trouble. Listening to Jesus meant following him. Following Jesus was dangerous. He was one of the most hated men in Jerusalem just a few weeks after his transfiguration with a near 100% disapproval rating, and he was assassinated.
Being a Christian right now in the United States of America is easy. But listening to Jesus and following?…that’s harder than ever. That’s more dangerous than ever.
It’s much easier to listen to all the wrong voices instead.
I watched the entire impeachment trial this week, and at this point I owe Jesus an apology. I haven’t watched that much TV news in twenty years. I watched everyone from Cuomo to Maddow to Hannity to Candace Owens, and was reminded why I don’t watch TV news.
There is an episode of the Simpsons in which Homer goes to anger management because he’s a Rage-o-holic. “I’m Homer Simpson, he says. And I’m addicted to Rage-a-hol.”
We are a culture addicted to outrage-a-hol. Moral outrage has become our modus operandi.
Despite what you may believe, liberals and conservatives: outrage addiction doesn’t know a political party, an ideology, or a religion. It is equal opportunity. For every liberal snowflake member of the PC police, I can show you a person who is outraged about the generic holiday greeting they received at Walmart.
News media outlets capitalize on our outrage by using click bait catered to our particular tribal instincts and triggers.
They do this to titillate us into buying what they are selling, and we fall for it, every time.
Political or moral outrage effects our brains like a drug. We can’t get enough of it. The perpetuation and spread of outrage has overridden things like fact-checking, truth, debate, humor and reasonable conversation with people who disagree with us. And we have seen it becomes violent and even deadly far too often.
That’s what happens when we stop listening to Jesus.
Of the many disgusting images and audio clips I listened to from the insurrection, what really stuck with me were these voices:
1)the desperate and unheeded cries for help from the Capitol police officers calling dispatch, and
2) the people who said, over and over again, “I came here and did this
because my president asked me to.”
You don’t get to hold a flag with a cross on it if the voice you are following leads you to beat a police officer with it.
That’s what happens when we stop listening to Jesus.
His voice calls not for violence, but for healing. Not for division, but for unity. Not for chaos, but for justice. Not for lies, but for truth. His voice is in the unheeded cries for help; not in the voice of one man obsessed with his own power.
If the voices we listen to are only interested in triggering our moral outrage, they are not God’s. If the voices we listen to are advocating for violence, they are not the voice of God. If the voices we listen to are not interested in healing, or casting our demons, they are not God’s. If the voices we listen to are not leading us along the Way of Love, they are not God’s. If the voices we listen to are not interested in our well-being, our flourishing, the earth’s healing, or peace, they are not God’s. If the voices we listen to are not calling us, our neighbors and everyone we can’t stand “Beloved,” they are not God’s voice.
We have not been listening to Jesus.
Sometimes we need to be up high to see the promise land. Sometimes we need to hear what God’s voice sounds like again. Sometimes we need a mountaintop moment to remember who we are: beloved children of the same God.
Don Wilson, who we laid to rest yesterday, had us sing one of his favorite hymns, the Summons:
Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?
Will you go where you don't know and never be the same?
Will you let my love be shown? Will you let my name be known,
will you let my life be grown in you and you in me?
Will you leave yourself behind if I but call your name?
Will you care for cruel and kind and never be the same?
Will you risk the hostile stare should your life attract or scare?
Will you let me answer prayer in you and you in me?
Will you let the blinded see if I but call your name?
Will you set the prisoners free and never be the same?
Will you kiss the leper clean and do such as this unseen,
and admit to what I mean in you and you in me?
Will you love the "you" you hide if I but call your name?
Will you quell the fear inside and never be the same?
Will you use the faith you've found to reshape the world around,
through my sight and touch and sound in you and you in me?
Lord your summons echoes true when you but call my name.
Let me turn and follow you and never be the same.
In Your company I'll go where Your love and footsteps show.
Thus I'll move and live and grow in you and you in me.
We talk a lot in this church about what it means to create the kingdom of heaven on earth. Well, heaven is just like that. Heaven is listening for the voice of Jesus summoning us to fearlessly turn and follow, to love and grow, to leave ourselves behind, to care for cruel and kind, to set the prisoners free, to reshape the world around us, and never be the same again. Heaven is seeing the humanity in others, even if they don’t see yours’. Heaven is looking around and seeing not scarcity, but abundance. Heaven is looking in our neighbor’s bowl only to make sure they have enough, and fighting like hell for them if they don’t. Heaven replaces our addiction to outrage with an insatiable desire to love wastefully and extravagantly, the way God loves us.
It is never too late to listen to Jesus. It is never too late to follow him on the Way of Revolutionary Love.
Rev. Robin Bartlett is the Senior Pastor at the First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts. www.fcsterling.org