February 11, 2018: May God’s words alone be spoken, may God’s words alone be heard. Amen.
The winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea have begun, and I am, as usual, totally glued to the TV watching every moment I can. The winter Olympics are by far my favorite, which is odd since I don’t know how to do anything in it (other than shoot a rifle, like they do in the biathlon). I mean, I don’t know how to downhill ski (the only time I did this as a teen I ended up plowing into the barrier protecting the folks waiting in line for the ski lift – I wasn’t taught how to stop). I can ice skate, sort of, though I would love to learn to do that well, because I can only go forward, not backward. And as for women’s ice hockey… I would LOVE to learn to play and find an adult league around here – seriously, I would. In other words, while I was a 7 varsity letter athlete in High School and played field hockey for a major university, when it comes to sports that happen in ice and snow, I am a life long spectator/wanna be.
But another reason I love the winter games so much is that, while both summer and winter games require great skill and dedication, the winter games add something else to many of its sports – the need for courage in the face of danger. You have to have courage to stand on skis staring down a steep slope to a jump point, ready to fly through the air and land some ways down the mountain. You have to have courage to be tossed into the air above the hard ice, spinning like a corkscrew, and then attempt to land on a thin blade with one leg moving backward across the ice – smiling for the judges the entire time. You have to have courage to step into a small sled and barrel down a track made of ice, following a winding path that left one of your competitors dead the previous day on a training run. You have to have courage to ski down a slope at top speed that took the life of another competitor earlier in the week. No, those deaths didn’t happen this year – those happened in previous winter games, but at any moment those tragedies could be repeated.
The winter games are dangerous in a way the summer games generally are not, save perhaps for the high divers. The athletes move at blinding speeds, or fly through the air, across or above slick and rock hard surfaces. Those who engage in these sports are courageous…or crazy – or perhaps there is always a bit of crazy in being courageous. But either way, it all is all so inspiring to watch. I am amazed by what I witness in these moments on TV.
But perhaps one of the most courageous things of the games this year so far is the story of Adam Rippon – the first openly gay Olympian who is competing this year for the US. Note the description “openly gay,” – we know there were others (just as we know that the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson wasn’t the first gay bishop, just the first one not in the closet) – but out of fear, they could not be authentic to who they were. Think about that. These folks do incredibly dangerous things, but what frightened some of them more than the ice, more than descending the steep slopes at high speed, more than flying through the air…what was scarier than all of that – were the very people in the country they represented – they were afraid of us. Think about that for a moment.
So, yes – being an Olympian, especially one at the winter games, takes great courage. You know what else takes courage? Being a follower of Christ. And that leads us to our readings today. I love the story of Elijah and Elisha, but it is the gospel story of the transfiguration that I want to speak about this Sunday.
Jesus grabs three disciples – Peter, James, and John, and brings them to the top of a mountain. While there, Jesus gets lit up like a Christmas Tree, with dazzling white clothes that make the whole scene sound like a Tide commercial. And not only that – but Elijah – the same Elijah who, in our Hebrew text this morning, disappears in a chariot of fire (he did have flair that prophet) – well, he makes another appearance here with his bud Moses, and the three of them have a little mountain meet-up. I kinda want to know – what the heck were they talking about up there in all that bright light? But, that is a sermon for another day.
Now, the boys are terrified by what they saw, and Peter decides that this would be a great time to just stay right where they are – let’s build some houses, and not move – just bask in this awesome moment. I can understand that, I think maybe most of us could. We experience something amazing and even terrifying (as amazing things sometimes are), and we want to just hunker down and stay right where we are. Maybe the Olympic skiers and jumpers, the first time they are brought up to the top of a mountain, have an inclination to do the same. “You know, it looks really pretty up here. Maybe we don’t have to go back down so very fast. Maybe this whole idea of speeding down a ramp on skis and catapulting ourselves into the air isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Let’s just rethink this and hang out here at the top.”
But when Peter says this in the gospel, God tells Peter to shut up and listen to Jesus – and Jesus leads them down the mountain. Why did Jesus take them up there in the first place? He could have gone alone. What was it that Jesus needed these three to see, to experience?
Abraham Heschel, a Rabbi, theologian, and philosopher once said “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. Get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”
“To be spiritual is to be amazed.”
I would add this – To be spiritual is to be amazed…and to follow Jesus, is to have great courage to do something with it.
Jesus brought those three guys up the mountain to witness something amazing – not to stay there, but to take what they experienced and have the courage to come down the mountain and follow Him – and that takes great courage…and perhaps even a bit of craziness. Because being a Christian isn’t a life for the timid, or for those who want to stay right where they are – all hunkered down and safe, basking in the glow of His light. Being a follower of Jesus means stepping into a journey where the cross looms as a possibility. You see, whenever we do the work of Christ – whenever we follow Him – we are going to do the things he did.
We will overturn the tables of hate.
We will stand with the suffering.
We will resist, persist, and enlist others in our cause of love.
And that, my friends, really annoys those who have power. Jesus knew that. Jesus knew what lay ahead for him once they descended down that mountain. He knew, and he told them right then and there: he would rise from the dead. You can’t rise from the dead, if you aren’t dead in the first place! Just as you can’t have Easter without Good Friday. Jesus was going to do what he came to do, the things we are called to do as his followers – and he knew the cost may be his life. And he wanted his disciples to be prepared.
Why these three? I suspect that maybe they were the ones who needed it the most. Maybe they were the ones who needed the thing that would make their journey in Christ possible. They needed the wonder and amazement of that mountaintop experience to fill their hearts, to give them the crazy courage they would need to be their authentic selves as his followers. So that they would be able to hold in their hearts this Easter vision, as they walked in the shadow of the cross – the cross that those in power will build to intimidate and deter any who would challenge the oppressive systems they have built.
Olympians hold amazement in their hearts in a very similar way – the amazement of conquering a mountain at exhilarating speeds and flights through the air – and the joy they feel when it all happens and they fly past the finish – all while knowing that the danger of injury or death is always present. As Christians today, we need to hold on to the amazement too – that blindingly bright joy of God’s love, grace, and peace – that powerful victory of Easter over the forces of hate, violence, and oppression. That vision will go with us down the mountain too, and stay in our hearts during the difficult journey ahead. It is the power that radical amazement holds.
The Olympics – both summer and winter – have a moment of radical amazement too. It is the opening ceremonies. And this year, it did not disappoint. There was the awe inspiring display of a record-setting 1,218 drones, flying high above the mountain, that came together, all lit up, to form the five Olympic rings in the sky. I mean – it was absolutely amazing – no other word for it. But there were also other moments – transfiguration moments – that filled the hearts of those who watched.
Two countries at bitter odds with one another – a people split in two by those in power – North and South Korea – were united…if only for a moment, as they marched together into the stadium to a roaring crowd. Then, towards the end of the Opening Ceremony, two women from the now joint Korean ice hockey team, one from the North, and one from the South, stood arm in arm grasping the Olympic torch. They then turned and ran together up a long slope to hand it off to the South Korean skater – as she would have the honor of lighting the eternal flame of the games. (I LOVE that the honors for this pivotal moment were given to three women!). And, in that moment in time – peace prevailed over division and hate.
Then, the world watched as the center ring darkened, and torches were lit. Those holding the torches merged to form with their light the image of a dove – the symbol of peace – as voices rose singing “Imagine,” a song we know so well here in the US. John Lennon’s words we heard echoing among the throngs of people from all over the world in that stadium speak volumes. The opening verses are:
Imagine there’s no countries. It isn’t hard to do. Nothing to kill or die for. And no religion too. Imagine all the people living life in peace, you…You may say I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one. I hope some day you’ll join us. And the world will be as one.
“Imagine all the people living life in peace.” Imagine that.
It all seems so possible in those Olympic moments, doesn’t it? Ahh, you see, that is one of our mountaintop experiences. It is the transfiguration moment that fills our hearts, and I think many of us as we watched wanted to linger right there – to bask in the glow of children singing, of people from all cultures and creeds standing side by side, of experiencing a vision of world peace – where no one lives in fear. It is our Peter moment…and we must be careful.
We must be careful to pay attention to what was happening. Think about the song for a moment – remember the lyrics – “no religion too.” Wait, what? Why on earth should we like that? Well, we shouldn’t – but, we do need to own it.
Lyrics like this express what many feel about religions – because the fact is – folks like Olympian Adam Rippon wouldn’t need to have great courage to live his authentic life if it weren’t for religious people – Christians especially though not exclusively – oppressing them. Yes, religions are also behind the largest and most expansive charity work all around the world, but for far too long, good people of faith have thought it okay to just hunker down in tents with walls of exclusion, rather than head down the mountain with Jesus. They thought it enough to bask in His light, but not share it – or worse – tell others they are unworthy of it. The truth is, so long as we say or do nothing while people spew hate in the name of God, we are complicit in it, we stayed on the mountain, and folks like the late John Lennon will feel as they do.
Here’s the thing – ours is a radical faith. It’s gonna shake you up and challenge you. That is how we are transformed – really transfigured – in our baptism. We are changed in our encounter with God, and our lives won’t be the same. We may want to put all this stuff back – this Jesus life – into a neat and orderly existence – but that’s not what happens if we open ourselves up to being transfigured. No – engagement with God is more like what it must be for those winter Olympians – exhilarating, joyful, intensely focused, sometimes dangerous, moments speeding down a hill or flying through the air. Sometimes we will fall, or even get hurt (or killed), but once we allow the Holy Spirit to push us off – there is no turning back…and we wouldn’t even want to – because to do anything else, to hunker down and not take that journey – is unthinkable. Having done it even once, everything else pales by comparison. That’s why we must be careful, because as joy filled as that moment in PyeongChang was, we might be tempted to stay right there – but we were never meant to do that. We weren’t made to hide in tents, but to walk with Christ, in radical amazement.
We are part of the Jesus Movement, and we must take the vision Jesus gives us – the amazing and powerful joy of light and love of God – and courageously come down the mountain to the hard, but life giving work Jesus calls us to in his name. We need to take the powerful dream of peace the Olympics gives us, that Jesus gives us, and join the Holy Spirit in the world bringing that to a reality.
The end goal for a Christian isn’t a gold medal, but something even more valuable – making a difference in the world by sharing the gospel of God’s all abiding grace and love. So that people like Adam Rippon won’t need to be courageous about being who they are – just about doing all that crazy stuff on the ice. So that the symbolism so beautifully expressed in Olympic Opening Ceremonies may become real, and the feeling that religion is an obstacle to experiencing God’s love becomes a thing of the past.
So, let us come down the mountain and follow Jesus.
To break down the walls of injustice.
To lift up the poor and feed the hungry.
To change the drums of war to songs of peace.
Perhaps then, the world will be as one, and no one will have to imagine anymore.
For the audio from the 10:30am service, click here (or subscribe to our iTunes podcast):
Rev. Diana L. Wilcox
Christ Church in Bloomfield & Glen Ridge
February 11, 2018
Last Sunday After the Epiphany
1st Reading – 2 Kings 2:1-12
2nd Reading – 2 Corinthians 4:3-6
Gospel – Mark 9:2-9