“Overcome evil with good”

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 13th Sunday after Pentecost + September 3, 2017

Reading: Romans 12:9-21


If you were here for worship last Sunday, you probably remember Frank Hale giving a Temple Talk about the Navigators, our men’s group, which meets monthly for breakfast and also coordinates a lot of volunteer work to help people in the congregation and the community. Frank began his talk by mentioning the issue of Time magazine he’d seen sitting on his coffee table; its cover said in big letters: “Hate in America.”

“If we were making headlines,” Frank asked, “what would we want them to say? What about ‘Love at St. Andrew?’ How about ‘Christ is victorious?’”

I love that question. If a reporter were to look at St. Andrew, or at the Church of Jesus Christ as a whole, what is the headline we hope that they would write? If we were living up to our own highest standards of discipleship — or better, put, if we were living as close to God’s way as we could, what would that headline read?

I thought of that as I read this week’s lesson from Paul’s letter to the Romans. In this chapter Paul set forth the ideal image of Christian life. The introduction to that reading (printed in your bulletin in italics) says it like this: “Love is the unflagging standard of our behavior. When we encounter evil, we do not resort to its tactics but seek to overcome it with good. While Christians cannot control the actions and attitudes of others, we seek to live at peace with all people.”[1]

It can feel like we encounter evil a lot. As Frank pointed out, our news headlines often highlight the evil for us. Hatred, violence, and crime; abuse, discrimination, and infighting; corruption, lies, and terrorism — the news can make it feel like that’s all there is in the world.

And we may experience evil more close to home, in our own personal lives. We suffer from broken relationships, we feel caught in webs of manipulation or defensiveness or anger. Someone may lie to us or treat us unfairly or make us feel betrayed. People we love hurt other people that we love.

Sometimes all that evil seems overwhelming. We want to be part of the good that overcomes that evil, but how do we do that? How do we even start?

A podcast series I’ve been listening to spent its final episode trying to answer the question of how we can help overcome one specific evil: racism. What can we actually do about it? The hosts of the podcast did one of the classic bits: asking random people on the street for their opinion. First they stopped a man named Robby and asked him, “I was wondering what you feel like the solutions to our race problems are.”

At first Robby joked about being asked out of the blue to answer such a conundrum “Oh, just a little, quick question like that. Not anything deep…” But then he gave his actual answer, which made me think of this week’s reading from Romans. Robby said:

I think it’s humility. I think that even when we’re communicating our frustration or our anger, we do it from a very selfish place because I want to feel a certain way, and the fact that you’re not doing something that makes me feel that way, I’m offended by it. So I think selfishness is a huge, huge barrier to us being able to have an open and honest conversation. We have extreme challenges and things that have happened in the past that are absolutely unacceptable. But we bring that anger to the conversation from both sides, and that selfishness that I want to feel a certain way, I think really hinders our ability to move the conversation forward.[2]

As that introduction to our Romans reading reminded us — and as any therapist will tell you — we “cannot control the actions and attitudes of others.” But what Robby’s thoughts and Paul’s teachings share is the encouragement that we do have power over our own actions and attitudes. And as good, orthodox Lutherans we should say, better yet: it’s not us alone trying to change our own actions and attitudes — if you’ve tried to make conscious changes in yourself, whether that’s changing your eating habits or changing the way you treat the people around you or changing your outlook, you know how hard it can be to work transformation even in yourself. But we believe that we are not trying to change ourselves by ourselves, but the Holy Spirit is also working in us to transform us, to bring our thoughts and actions more and more into line with God’s will.

As Paul wrote earlier in this chapter of Romans:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Rom. 12:1-2)

And when we are “transformed by the renewing of [our] minds,” when we — with the Holy Spirit — do change our actions and attitudes, we can have big impacts in our conversations and our relationships.

If we can be a change from the usual way of doings things, if we can break the usual pattern, then the people and things around us have to respond to us and to the change we’re bringing. And at least that opens a door for things to change for the better.

When we do this as individuals, we can bring change to our own spheres. When we do this as a community — as St. Andrew here in Williamson County, and as the Church at large — we can change the world. Our lives can be one of the means by which God overcomes evil with good.

Let’s read the Romans lesson one more time. If you tried to cling closely to Paul’s advice, how might your life change? And if we all tried to cling closely to Paul’s advice, how might our community change? How might our nation change? How might the world change? You might even underline the parts that really jump out at you as we go.

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

hands-doves-sumility-medium

“Wonders by Their Hands,” Len Matthews (photograph). “Wonders are still able to be done in the city by our hands of compassion, mercy, humility and justice.” [Via Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Art in the Christian Tradition]


[1] From Sundays and Seasons: Year A 2017, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2016), September 3, 2017, Romans 12:9-21, pg. 257.

[2] John Biewen, “Transformation,” Scene on Radio, episode 45, (episode 14 of the series Seeing White), podcast, August 24, 2017. Available online: http://podcast.cdsporch.org/episode-45-transformation-seeing-white-part-14/

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Hidden Burdens/Come to Jesus

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 5th Sunday After Pentecost + July 9, 2017

Readings: Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30


Over the last month or so y’all have been involved in a flurry of casting prayers and blessings on members of this congregation as we’ve headed out for youth event after youth event. It started with Vacation Bible School, which was only about a month ago but, to me, already feels like a lifetime ago. This morning, Sandy Vollmer, Pastor Lippard, and a pile of our youth are in a van somewhere between here and Lutherock in North Carolina. In between were other events – Affirm in Alabama, Nights Alive in Nashville. It’s been almost non-stop, and it’s been amazing. You shouldn’t be surprised if you strike up a conversation with me and I eventually start rambling about watching 400 youth dance around to the “holy, holy, holy” song during communion, or how I asked a group of kids what the word “behold,” means, and one little preschooler raised his hand and said, “It kind of means, like, ‘TA-DA!”

Last week Rand Smith and I were chatting before a Worship Planning meeting, and our conversation turned to Affirm: the synod-wide youth gathering that took place a few weeks ago. Rand’s wife, Beth, served on the camp medical staff, as she has for many years, and I’m sure various members of their family have been involved with Affirm for most of its existence. Rand shared with me some of the feedback he’d heard about this year’s Affirm, and eventually he mentioned, “I just learned about ‘Weepy Wednesday…’”

Weepy Wednesday is one of those unofficial traditions at Affirm. According to a conversation I had with Bishop Gordy in the line for the cafeteria salad bar, the Wednesday evening worship service was once intentionally built to be an especially emotional experience, or in Bishop’s words, “They tried to make the kids cry.” But even though that tradition was dropped some years ago, the phrase, “Weepy Wednesday” hangs on – but now it applies to something that happens more naturally but still almost predictably: on Wednesday evening, for some reason, campers will cry.

Maybe Weepy Wednesday happens because the lesson plans each group follows build to their most intense point in the middle of the week. Maybe Weepy Wednesday happens because the campers have started to feel safe with their small groups after a few days together. Probably some combination of things: but regardless, it happens.

My first Weepy Wednesday experience felt like it came totally out of the blue. I was on staff with a unit called Bridges, and we spent the week focusing on the differences between people, the things that turn those differences into things that divide us, and how we can “build bridges” over those divides. So from the very beginning we’d been having intense conversations about our own identities and experiences and a lot of tough topics: racism, sexism, stereotypes, violence. I’d thought we’d already been getting deeply personal.  But for some reason when Wednesday evening came, it was like a floodgate burst open. All of a sudden a dozen teenagers were lying on the floor, crying and sharing their deepest, most hidden hurts with one another. My heart broke when I heard the heavy burdens some of the teenagers were bearing.

This year, at least, I saw my Weepy Wednesday experience coming. One of the units, called Exodus, spends the first part of the week focusing on some of life’s toughest issues, like sin and death. Everyone in the unit carries a brick with them everywhere they go; it’s supposed to symbolize the burdens they bear. On Wednesday evening they finally lay down their burdens: they let go of their brick; they write burdens or sins on pieces of paper and watch them dissolve in water; they participate in a service of group confession, and they are given the option of meeting with a pastor for a time of private confession. Later in the evening, they will lie down on the floor, then someone will take their hand and physically raise them up to their new life in Christ. And the next morning is an Easter party.

I was asked to be part of Exodus’s Wednesday evening because they needed a female pastor for the time of private confession. So once again I found myself experiencing Weepy Wednesday: teenagers crying and sharing the hurts they hid from the world.

And as, once again, I found myself shocked by the stories these teenagers shared with me, I thought: we just never know what burdens other people are carrying, hidden away so carefully.

In today’s reading from Romans, Paul described the burden of his own sinfulness in what I think are some of the most relatable words of the whole Bible (I catch myself thinking them a lot): “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do…Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”

Some of the burdens we bear are like that: Struggles with our own sins, our own tendency to make poor choices, our own bad habits and addictions.  Along similar lines: we might bear the burdens of focusing on our insufficiencies, we might insult ourselves, we might feel like we will never be good enough. We might feel like Paul: trapped and overpowered by something within us.

Sometimes our burdens come from outside of us: other people’s sin affects our lives; in their brokenness, they hurt us; and sometimes the world just turns in ways that injure us – seemingly without reason. We can feel trapped and overpowered by things outside of us, too.

We express this feeling of being trapped by wrong forces within or without in different ways: Christianity has terms like “original sin” and “total depravity,” and in the Bible we often read about people’s “hardness of heart.”

And sometimes we make up complicated rules or formulas for how to escape that feeling of being trapped. If the problem feels so complicated and inescapable, surely the solution must also be complex, some specific set of things that will, like a combination on a lock, click into place and set us free.

Making things too complicated – and being stubborn and prideful and hypocritical about it — what Jesus seems to have been criticizing people for in the beginning of today’s gospel reading. They said they were open to receiving God’s messengers, but when those messengers came, they never fit the bill. First, John the Baptist was too strict and weird. Then Jesus was too lax: he ate and drank too much and hung out with the wrong sort of people.

Next there’s a part of Jesus’s speech left out by our lectionary: where Jesus proclaimed “Woe to you!” to the cities who had refused his message. He did not fit their bill, either.

And then suddenly Jesus switched tone. We hear his prayer: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” The idea seems to be: all these people are applying their complicated rules and expectations, but it only leads them to deny me and you. They stay trapped in themselves and in the ways of the world. But really your offer of freedom is so simple, a baby could grasp it.

And how does Jesus say we can get that freedom from our entrapping burdens?

Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

 That’s it. The big key the messiah offered to finding rest from our burdens and our feelings of being trapped is: Come to me, and I will give you rest.

For us, I think that means two things:

First – and this is probably what you’re already thinking about – is coming to Jesus in that personal, spiritual sense. Coming to trust in a God who cares for you; who offers you forgiveness for your own sin and fights against the sinful forces outside of you. Coming to find peace and rest in giving your burdens to God in prayer, knowing that God will bear those burdens with you. Like in that famous hymn:

What a friend we have in Jesus,

All our sins and griefs to bear!

What a privilege to carry

Everything to God in prayer![1]

 There is also another way we who are weary and carrying heavy burdens can come to Jesus, and this one is more physical and more communal. We remember that the Church is now the Body of Christ on earth, and so we learn to come together. We come to trust one another, to get past our fear or our pride and to share our burdens with one another. We come to find in yet another sense that we are not alone in bearing our burdens. And, like the Affirm kids on Weepy Wednesday, maybe we can find a sense of relief and peace in sharing our burdens with one another.

In coming together, we come to Christ.

Let us pray:

We rejoice, O Christ,
for in your tender compassion
you shoulder our burdens and ease our heavy hearts.
Give us the strength to carry each other
as you have carried us. Amen.[2]


[1] Joseph Scriven, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship 742.

[2] From Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Revised Common Lectionary prayer resources, Proper 9 (14), Fifth Sunday After Pentecost, July 9, 2017. Available online: http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/prayers.php?id=149 Accessed July 8, 2017.

In Moments of Chaos: Where Do We Go From Here?

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Third Sunday of Easter + April 30, 2017

Reading: Luke 24:13-35


Last weekend I was away at a conference entitled, “Confronting Chaos, Forging Community.” That title came from a book written by Martin Luther King, Jr.; his last book, in fact, written in 1967, the year before he was assassinated. By that time the Civil Rights Movement had seen many successes: a new Civil Rights Act had passed in 1964, outlawing discrimination based on race when it came to hiring people for jobs, ending segregation in schools and other public places, and protecting voting rights for African-Americans and others who faced discrimination. Another victory had come in 1965 with the passage of the Voting Rights Act, which did even more to tear down laws and practices that kept people from the polls based on their race.

And so in 1967 the Rev. Dr. King took one of his few real breaks from the movement, retiring for the months of January and February to an island in Jamaica with only his wife and two close friends and co-workers. No telephone. No cameras. Just time and space to reflect on the state of things in U.S. society. African-Americans still faced resistance to their demands for equality, and they would need to work to ensure that the new laws were enforced. Black nationalism was on the rise, and King condemned its militarism and its cry for black separatism. Poverty was growing among all the races. The Vietnam War was going on and on. There was still so much work to do. His reflections and plan for the future were published in that last book, entitled Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?[1]

 Back in around 33 A.D. Jesus’s disciples may have been asking themselves that same question in the days after Jesus’s crucifixion. They, too, had seen a number of victories during their time with the Jesus movement: They’d seen Jesus heal lepers and blind men and people who had never been able to walk. They’d seen a few fish and loaves of bread feed a crowd of thousands. They’d heard promises of good news for the poor and food for the hungry and God’s love for the least of us, even the most obvious of sinners. They’d seen a wandering preacher from Nazareth enter the capitol city to waving palm branches and cries of “Hosanna!”; they’d seen him enter the Temple, overturn the tables of moneylenders, and call out the hypocrisy and greed of certain religious leaders. They saw in this man the whole kingdom of God setting foot on the ground with them.

And then chaos. The betrayal. The arrest. The mockery and torture. The crucifixion. Hopelessness.

And then more chaos. Stories of a missing body and of angels proclaiming resurrection.

So maybe we can imagine those two disciples of Jesus, walking on the road to Emmaus on the Sunday after the crucifixion and “talking with each other about all these things that had happened.” Where do we go from here? they may have been asked each other. Do we just go back to our old lives? Is that even an option? Do we try to keep doing the work Jesus started, or is that pointless now? Do we give in to the chaos, or do we try to hang on to our community?

 And that is one of those moments where an ancient Bible story just plugs right into our modern-day lives. The details may be vastly different, but I’m sure we all know what it’s like to face down a moment of chaos. Sitting with our hearts pounding in an emergency room waiting area. Suddenly losing a job, and thinking only “Now what?” Break-ups or divorce or fights with family and friends. We could each make our own lists of the times we’ve thought, helplessly, “Where do we go from here?”

As the two disciples on the road to Emmaus asked those questions, a stranger began walking with them — and though they didn’t recognize him, we know that stranger was Jesus. They told him about the chaos of the last few days, of their hope and faith in the prophet Jesus of Nazareth, and of how their own religious leaders had condemned him to death. Jesus the Stranger let them tell the story of their chaos, and then he turned them to scripture.

There are lots of ways to tell the overarching story of our scriptures. I wonder if at that moment, Jesus told the story like this:

God always creates something good out of chaos. You two may have expected a straightforward story of a savior: the messiah coming like a superhero to right all the wrongs and champion the “little people,” winning a clean, easy victory. But look back at our scriptures. God is always working through the mess of this world.

“In the beginning…the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters…” and from that chaos God created all this world (Gen. 1:1-2).

God saved the people of Israel from slavery and led them to the promised land; but it was not straightforward or easy; it was through plague and through the sea, through forty years in the wilderness where the people groaned and complained and almost lost faith.

David was God’s chosen king, and God gave him wisdom and prosperity and a great legacy, but even David sometimes cried out in psalms: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1).

God’s people were exiled from the promised land and from their homes, but God continued to send them prophets, and the people became more established in their faith and their culture and their community during that exile.

The prophets spoke of both God’s judgement and God’s mercy. And they spoke honestly about how those who were faithful and committed to the work of God would face suffering at the hands of this world — maybe most notably in the haunting words of the Songs of the Suffering Servant, found in the writings of the prophet Isaiah:

By a perversion of justice he was taken away.

Who could have imagined his future?

For he was cut off from the land of the living,

Stricken for the transgression of my people.

They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich,

Although he had done no violence,

And there was no deceit in his mouth (Isaiah 53:8-9).

Doesn’t all this sound so much like the life and death of your prophet Jesus of Nazareth? “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Can’t you understand that God is still working through the crucified one? Can’t you believe that chaos does not mean that God abandoned you?

emmaus-rembrandt-medium

Supper at Emmaus, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1628). From Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Art in the Christian Tradition.

Of course we can hear those Bible stories and those promises over and over again; we can hear about how God has worked in the lives of others in our own time; and we can believe all of that with all our hearts and minds and souls — and still in our own moments of chaos, it can be hard to actually see God there with us amidst our pain and confusion. It can be hard to see much of anything through the chaos.

The same was true for those two disciples on the road to Emmaus. They did not recognize the risen Jesus when he began to walk with them. They did not recognize him as he spoke with them or interpreted the scriptures for them. It was not until he did that physical act of breaking the bread and giving them that food that they realized he had been there with them all along.

We also need such physical, touchable acts to help us know that God is with us in our moments of chaos. This is why we break bread together here at church each week during Holy Communion. This is why we touch water to our foreheads to remember the promise of our baptism. And this is why we bring meals to one another when we are in mourning, why we visit one another in the hospital, why we reach out to comfort one another with a smile or a hug or a card. This is why we serve and speak up for those Jesus served and spoke up for: the hungry, the poor, the suffering, the sinner. God works through all those actions to remind those who need to hear it most: you are not alone and good will be resurrected from the chaos.

In the midst of our moments of chaos we need to go to our community and to seek Christ in one another. As we confront our chaos and forge our community, we realize that Christ has been with us all along and that God will lead us on.


[1]”Where Do We Go From Here (1967),” Martin Luther King, Jr. and The Global Freedom Struggle, online: http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/encyclopedia_contents.html Accessed 27 April 2017.

For Good Friday (and the Moments Like It)

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Good Friday + April 14, 2017

Reading: John 18-19


In 1928 Dietrich Bonhoeffer — just 22 years old and still too young to be ordained  — preached these words as part of a sermon:

On Good Friday let us not think right away about the fact that with Easter things were given a new direction. We want to think about how with the death of Jesus the disciples saw all hope dashed. Scattered from each other, they brooded in hopeless sorrow about what had happened. Only when we can take the death of Jesus just as seriously as they did, will we rightly understand what the resurrection message can bring.[1]

So I want us to dwell in this hopeless moment with the disciples for a while. They didn’t know would happen next. We may look back and say: they should have known; Jesus told them he would be raised from the dead. But would we have been able to believe that after the whirlwind of betrayal and violence? All the hopes raised by Jesus’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem, the people taking to the streets with palm branches to welcome him, shouting “Hosanna!” — all those hopes shattered just a few days later, after one of Jesus’s closest disciples led the police right to him, after the crowds of Jerusalem suddenly changed their cry from “Hosanna!” to “Crucify him!” It had all changed so quickly, and all the disciples’ dreams of following their beloved leader into a new world hung there on the cross with him, crucified by the same old cruel world that always had been and always would be. The disciples hid themselves away and let that truth dig its hopeless hole inside them: Jesus was dead. It was over. It had all been for nothing.

Good Friday is a holy time to reflect on this moment of hopelessness and the millions of other moments like it. Such times — when all seems lost — are tragically commonplace. We know them from history: people being captured and enslaved; stock markets crashing; boats sinking; trains of people pulling into internment camps; wars being declared and wars being surrendered. We know hopeless moments from the news: shootings; human trafficking; starvation; bombs dropping. We know hopeless moments from personal experience: job loss; a bad diagnosis; injury; depression; broken relationships; death.

And yet as Christians on this side of Easter, even in such hopeless moments, we hold on to hope. We call this Friday, where we remember Christ’s crucifixion, “good.” We believe that God is there in our moments of tragedy. Why do we hold on to hope? How?

We hold on to hope because we know what comes next in this story and in stories like it. We know stories from the Bible: Joseph was left for dead, sold into slavery, and then imprisoned; but then he became a powerful leader in Egypt and saved his family from a famine (Genesis 37, 39-45). Moses killed a man and ran away from Pharaoh’s punishment into self-exile, but during his exile he was called by God to lead the Israelites out of slavery (Exodus 2-3). We know stories from our own time: John Garrett suffered from a terrible heart condition, but he became a great spokesperson for organ donation. My grandmother was a fairly young widow, but in her widowhood she has learned to drive and overcome her fear of flying and made so many new friends. Your world probably once felt like it was ending, but you made it through.

Jesus was crucified, but the resurrection morning is coming.

As, in the Old Testament, Joseph said to his brothers, so we can say to the moments where hopelessness threatens us: “Even though you intended to harm me, God intended it for good” (Gen. 50:20). We believe that one day we will look back on the darkest moments of our lives and be able to see them as the blessed dirt out of which God grew new life again. Jesus taught us this in the Beatitudes:

“Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh” (Luke 6:21).

The Good Friday moment, which seem so senseless, which feels like it must be an ending, or a pit we can’t climb out of — God will helps us make meaning out of it and find the good on the other side.

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote to a student who going through a time of suffering:

“So don’t be frightened, dear friend, if a sadness confronts you larger than any you have ever known, casting its shadow over all you do. You must think that something is happening within you, and remember that life has not forgotten you; it holds you in its hand and will not let you fall. Why would you want to exclude from your life any uneasiness, any pain, any depression, since you don’t know what work they are accomplishing within you?”[2]

When Jesus was crucified, the disciples felt hopeless, afraid, left with nothing. Even Jesus felt abandoned by God in that moment. But we believe that God was there, suffering with them in the face of the world’s injustice and sin, but ready to use that evil moment for good. Ready to turn tragedy into a miracle, ready to turn death into new life.

And so we can remember in our moments of loneliness and loss, depression and hopelessness: even those moments are blessed by God with the promise of the future.


[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, sermon in Barcelona for the third Sunday in Lent, 11 March 1928. Quoted in God is on the Cross, trans. O. C. Dean Jr., ed. Jana Riess, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 102.

[2] Ranier Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet.

Transfigured Moments

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + The Transfiguration of Our Lord + February 26, 2017

Reading: Matthew 17:1-9


This morning during Sunday School, Sandy Vollmer — our director for youth and children’s ministries — will take the confirmation class to the baptismal font to talk about baptism. Earlier this week she showed me some of the “props” for her lesson: thin, dry, brittle pieces of sponge, cut into the shape of hearts. They were so dried out, I almost didn’t recognize that they were made out of sponge material when she showed them to me. She and the students will place their dried-up hearts in the baptismal font and watch them swell up with the waters, looking full, and — in a way — healed and whole.

Then Sandy and the students will talk about the ways these soaking hearts represent what God does for us in baptism (what God just did in Spencer and Oliver’s baptisms): God fills up our hearts with the Holy Spirit; God heals us and makes us whole; God comes into the places in us that are dry and broken and dead-looking and sets to work on creating new life in us.

Those sponge-hearts can also represent something we keep seeking from God throughout our lives: in moments when our hearts or lives feel dried-up or empty or brittle or small, we come to God hoping for that divine touch to help keep the life alive in us, to fill us up, to make us stronger. We look for a glimpse of transcendence, for a moment outside of our moment, for an experience that helps us see beyond this time we feel stuck in, that helps us see the big picture when we feel trapped in a smaller part of the story, that gives us something to hold on to, something to fill us up and keep us going through the hard times.

When Jesus took his disciples Peter, James, and John up the mountain to witness his Transfiguration, they must have experienced one of the moments of transcendence of their lives. And I imagine that the timing of that mountaintop experience could not have been more perfect.

In the Gospel of Matthew the story of the Transfiguration is sandwiched in between stories in which Jesus tells the disciples about his impending death and all that they will suffer in his name. At that point in his ministry Jesus was starting to look ahead towards Jerusalem and arrest and execution; just a few verses before the Transfiguration, we read:

“From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matt. 16:21). It’s the first of four predictions of his death. And then come those famous words: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24).

After this conversation comes the story of the glorious Transfiguration, which we just read together. But our gospel reading for the day cuts off the conversation between Jesus and his disciples as they came down the mountain. After he told them not to tell anyone about the vision, the disciple asked him: don’t all the teachers say that the ancient prophet Elijah is supposed to return before the Messiah does his work? And Jesus responded, “‘…but I tell you Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands.’ Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist” (Matt. 17:11-13).

Over and over again Jesus talked with his disciples about how the prophets that came before had suffered, how he was going to suffer, and how they were going to suffer, too.

I used to think of speeches like those as moments when Jesus’s divinity showed through, and he predicted the future with his godly knowledge-of-everything. But I have forced myself into a new habit of reading these stories: to think about how everyone must have known that danger was coming, because it was obvious. It would not have taken prophetic powers to see what was on the horizon for Jesus and his disciples. Jesus was publicly speaking against a lot of powerful people; he was drawing large crowds to hear him teach; his message and his ministry were rallying too many people — and he was ready to go to the capitol and cause even more trouble. He and his closer followers must have known they would be in danger. They lived with that knowledge, and they moved forward toward Jerusalem with that knowledge.

So I wonder how Peter, James, and John felt, living like that, living with that sense of danger just around the corner. I wonder how they felt every time Jesus, their beloved leader, brought up the fact that he was about to be arrested and executed. Did they ever get weary? Dried-up? Feel empty or hopeless or afraid or wonder if it was all worth it?

In the midst of whatever they were feeling, Jesus took them up the mountain. Jesus took them out of the dangerous moment they were living in, led them off of the doomed path they were walking, and gave them a glimpse of something better. They saw their leader and friend — yes, that one who was preparing for death — they saw him shining with a light as powerful as the sun; they saw the ancient holy prophets Moses and Elijah speaking with him; they heard the voice of God say, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” In that one, bright-shining moment, their faith in Jesus was confirmed. He was indeed the Son of God, the messiah sent into the world.

And yes, they walked up that mountain with the knowledge of the dangerous future they faced; and yes, when they walked down the mountain Jesus reminded them yet again of the cost of being his disciple. But that brief moment on the mountaintop must have filled them up like a sponge in the baptismal font. And maybe they kept that moment with them, and they could remember it during difficult times, and through the memory God would fill them up again, strengthen their faith, and help them keep pressing forward.

The Church carries memories like the Transfiguration and passes them on to new generations of Christians. We gather in worship, in Bible studies, and in so many other ways to hear and tell these community stories. And we discover and share our own stories of mountaintop experiences. We come together again and again in faith that God still works through these stories to strengthen us along the way.

And as we hear these stories, it’s like we are being trained to see God in our everyday lives. Ordinary moments can be transfigured as we sense God moving in moments of silence, or in the wisdom of children, in an act of kindness, in a cry for justice. We hear stories from mountaintops in faraway places and long-ago times, but they help us see God’s story continuing around us now. May God transfigure our hard times and our dry hearts with the light of God’s presence. Amen.