Sermon of the Week
Keywords: threshold, disruptive change, Moses, transfiguration, Impractical Jokers, flat earth, liminal space.
Sometimes thinkers spend a lot of time thinking about thinking.
I wrote that sentence, and then decided I needed to go back to bed,
because it made my head hurt.
But I went back to it, and found that it seems accurate to me.
Maybe it is just that I’ve taken one too many philosophy classes
but that’s pretty much what a philosophy class is: thinking about thinking,
and then endless papers where you try to explain what you thought
and why you thought it.
There’s even a subset of philosophy that deals with
what you can think and what you can know.
We call that epistemology, the study of thinking, or the theory of knowledge.
But sometimes, for all this thinking,
an experience will come in and disrupt everything,
shake it up.
Twice this weekend I’ve had occasion to see something about flat earth theory.
This is the contention that our decidedly spherical earth is, in fact, not:
that we’re on some sort of flat shaped thing,
the actual details apparently vary.
The first time I encountered this was when we were trying to waste an hour or two
and were flipping around the television
and came across the show Impractical Jokers on Tru TV.
They’re popular enough, apparently, that they even made a movie,
and it is out in theatres now,
though I’m not sure I’ll rush to go see it. Your own experience might be different.
This is one of those shows where they set up hidden cameras
and send the hosts out into some common public space
and give them improvisational stunts to accomplish.
It is silly, and if that’s your thing, fantastic.
These are always a little too much “enjoyment in the foibles of others” for my taste
but I get why we human beings like this sort of thing.
We like to watch other people, even if sometimes we get a bit too close.
But it caught our eye, and we watched it for a little while.
The particular set up for this episode was that the hosts were pretending
that they were a couple, that they were dating
and they were going to fabricate an excuse to break up
while sitting at a table with some stranger
and the goal was to get the stranger to agree with the person
who was going to break it off that, yeah, I get it,
maybe this relationship isn’t working for you two.
And so this couple sits down,
it’s in a coffee shop,
and then one of them makes an excuse to head off to the restroom for a minute
and the other one talks to the stranger to set the whole thing up
and then the first one comes back
they get into an argument,
and they break it off
and if the stranger nods in approval or seems to support the whole thing,
bonus point for the team.
And so after the partner heads to the restroom, the first person tells the stranger
“This whole thing is crazy. We’ve been dating for a few months
and she is great, don’t get me wrong,
but she’s one of these flat-earthers, you know,
and she keeps talking about it,
and I just can’t handle it much anymore….”
And just then, on cue, she returns
and they start talking about the weather
and she says something like “you can’t understand the weather
unless you understand that the earth isn’t round, its flat”
and then the whole scene unfolds…
he breaks up with her, and storms off,
the stranger looks like he is witnessing something private and personal
and he just wanted to listen to his music and eat his scone in peace
and then everyone laughs.
I didn’t think much of the episode at the time.
It works maybe because we know the earth isn’t flat.
The mathematicians and astronomers figured it out eons ago,
going all the way back at least to Pythagoras
even though Galileo Galilei was widely condemned for it by the church
and Magellan had to circumnavigate the globe to convince everybody.
So, generally, we chuckle at this because almost everyone dismisses it as silly.
And then I saw, just this morning, a tragic story on CBS news
about a guy in California named Michael Hughes.
He died yesterday at the age of 64.
Hughes insisted that the earth is indeed flat.
So much so, he dedicated himself to building these homemade rockets
that would send him up into the sky so he could take pictures
that would prove him right.
He tried this once, in 2018, but he only got about 2000 feet into the air that time.
This time he planned for something far bigger, and it went horribly, tragically wrong.
Hughes died in the accident that followed.
I was kind of stunned, really, when I read about that this morning.
One minute, joking about a fictional break up scenario
and then the next minute, a guy who would just push everything to the edge.
There are a lot of things we don’t know,
as a people, as human beings.
And sometimes, we even push on what we do know,
because we all have our skepticism, our doubts, our insecurities.
It is part of what it means to be human, actually, to wrestle with all of that
and to try to make meaning, the best we can,
with the experience that we build up over a lifetime.
I mention all of that because sometimes what we think we know does actually change.
I just don’t recommend building a rocket ship yourself to go exploring like that.
There was a time when most people thought the earth was flat, right,
and now we do not.
We thought that the best way to communicate was carrier pigeon,
but then someone invented the telegraph.
We thought the Chiefs would never win a championship again, and now here we are.
(They said that about the Royals, too, if I remember correctly.)
There’s even a phrase for all that: we call it a paradigm shift,
when all of the categories of our settled understanding
get shuffled, right,
because of some new experience that doesn’t quite work…
and so we have to re-work everything: new concepts, more research,
giving up old ways of looking at it all.
That kind of work is always hard, and disruptive.
Sometimes people don’t accept it, refuse to accept it.
And paradigm shifts are always unsettling.
That’s one of the reasons why this era that we’re in feels so chaotic
because we’ve had one paradigm shift after another
in technology and society and culture.
Just look at the impact of the jet airplane and the internet these days.
And it is natural for some people to look back and want the former days,
the way it was, when that is more like trying to get the toothpaste back in the tube.
Did I say, back at the start of the sermon,
that sometimes thinkers spend too much time thinking about thinking?
Ok, maybe I should listen to that and move on,
but the idea of a paradigm shift is really helpful for us
to think about these particular moments in our scripture today.
Way back when, once upon a time,
there was a group of people who followed a God
who helped them break free
from slavery and bondage and oppression in Egypt.
They had been there, in servitude, for 400 years.
It was all they knew.
And suddenly, here’s this brave Hebrew named Moses
is inspired by God’s dream of breaking the injustice of that servitude
and so Moses challenged the Pharaoh and he led them out,
with the mighty help of their God…
But Moses led them out…where?
Well, out to the wilderness,
out into the unknown,
out into an entirely new existence that was, for them, disruptive and unsettling,
so much so that some people grumbled and groused:
we were better back there,
better because we had two square meals a day and maybe a bed to sleep in at night
and yeah they worked us
but we at least knew what to expect, Moses.
Maybe servitude was better…Moses.
It wasn’t better, of course. But that was what some people were saying.
Much of the book of Exodus is Moses helping his people keep it together
during that turbulent time,
and, with God’s help,
they found water, and food,
and a set of laws to help structure their society
as they migrated East, across the border into Canaan.
It required a paradigm shift. A new way of understanding the world.
A transition from what was, to what is over the horizon
to what we cannot, quite yet, see.
In the Hebrew Tradition,
this is also a story of God’s steady hand throughout it all,
God taking initiative to break injustice and to do something good for God’s people
even if and when they didn’t quite see the big picture,
when they were stuck in their old ways of thinking
when they had trouble trusting…
because, let’s be clear, this was a big gamble, a huge risk
challenging one of the greatest nations of that time,
and then heading off with whatever you could carry
to go wander out in the wilderness for a generation.
By the time that we get to today’s reading,
they’ve already gone through a lot of that
and they’re still wandering about, wondering when things will settle down again.
Moses gets called up to the mountain, Mount Sinai,
and he encounters God up there, on the mountain,
and he’s up there for a long time…
There’s a crazy amazing cloud
and a devouring fire
and the very glory of the Lord.
And you get the sense of the people sitting around,
watching all of this, wondering what will come next,
wondering when things will start making sense
and a new sense of normal might be possible.
We often pair this reading with the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus.
There’s a lot of symbolism in the Exodus story,
just as there is in this reading from the Gospel of Matthew
and you can tell that the story of Jesus is meant to evoke that time,
when God shared with the people the very law that would give them
their identity and their purpose,
that would help shape them into a people.
They didn’t know it, but these mountaintop encounters between Moses and God
would shape their entire future as a people
would help them see how they could be a blessing for the whole world
would encourage them to welcome the foreigner and the widow and the orphan
would set the stage for generations of possibility and hope.
They didn’t see it then.
What they saw was a foreboding mountain top.
What they knew was that they were slogging through difficult terrain,
exhausted, tired of eating manna,
wondering what was around the corner.
And now we have Matthew telling us the story of Jesus
the one born in the humble town of Bethlehem,
baptized in the river Jordan
preaching, teaching, healing his way toward the Kingdom of God,
and inviting everyone to join him along the way.
And along the way he’s gathered a few people inspired by the God
that they see working through him, disciples, apprentices,
and they drop everything and start following him,
and as they do,
they start trying to figure out what the heck is going on.
Have you ever wondered why the disciples seem so confused all the time?
All of the gospels, to greater or lesser degree, mention this.
I used to wonder about this,
and then remembered how confused I was in all these philosophy classes
and I felt a little bit better about myself and my struggles.
This Jesus, he is grounded in the past.
He is called a rabbi. He understands the traditions.
He quotes from the scriptures.
He fields all sorts of questions from scribes and pharisees,
experts in the law and the prophets, who try to trip him up,
and Jesus answers all of them,
but HIS is a novel message,
a new way of seeing everything.
And so, for instance,
last week we talked about the antitheses contained in Jesus’ sermon on the mount.
If you remember, these are the statements that start:
You have heard it said….but I say to you…
And so Jesus taught:
do not be angry
turn the other cheek
pray for your enemies.
None of that makes any sense, not really.
And people in the know, purveyors of conventional wisdom,
they all call it foolishness.
But Jesus keeps teaching and preaching and healing and leading, just like this.
Jesus offers a new way of looking at what God is doing in the world
building on the best of his tradition, for sure,
and embodying a powerful love, one that offers hope and salvation,
one that helps mend our brokenness and inspires reconciliation.
From THIS side of the story, it is beautiful and warm and comforting.
But to the disciples, it was confounding and confusing and befuddling.
They didn’t understand what was going on.
That’s ok. Jesus took it all in stride, and did what he could to explain everything,
knowing that paradigm shifts take time,
that they’re confusing when we’re in the middle of them,
and that they’re a necessary reality for us to experience,
even if we don’t really want to.
Jesus takes three of his disciples up on the mountain top
a place apart, where tradition holds you are closer to God
and therefore might be inspired by that proximity
to think and experience more Godly things.
I doubt Peter and James and John had any idea what they were getting into.
And up on the mountain, something happens:
Jesus starts to glow. He looks different.
They see Moses!
And they’re talking with Jesus. And they’re so, so bright.
Where are the sunglasses? James, I thought you had them.
And my goodness this all feels so strange and different,
but important. Something significant is happening.
Something to pay attention to.
Peter and James and John knew THAT story from the Book of Exodus.
They knew that, a bit later in that book,
Moses is said to have taken on a glow about him after meeting with God
so much so that he had to put a veil on his face
because the Glory of God was that bright.
They saw Jesus glowing. They saw Moses.
They knew that Moses was up there on that mountain for forty days.
Maybe we’re going to be here a while.
They decide that maybe they should interrupt proceedings just a little bit
and see what they can do to help out.
Excuse me. Jesus.
Sorry to bug you. All of this is good. So good. So very good.
Not scary or strange at all. Nope.
Hey, listen, should we set up these tents?
We could do one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah.
What would be good? How can we help?
What logistics do we need to be helping out with?
Anyone need coffee?
And then there’s the cloud that surrounds everyone
and they hear that voice again, the one that we heard at Jesus’ baptism:
Hey, everyone: this Jesus is my beloved son. I’m well pleased. Listen to Jesus.
And then it is all over.
Moses and Elijah have vanished.
It’s just Jesus and Peter and James and John
with their clipboards and their planning all torn up and tossed aside.
What in the world just happened?
We call these moments of transition liminal space.
That phrase comes from the Latin word for the space between rooms,
when you’re kind of in both rooms at the same time
or not in either room quite any more
where it is already, but not yet
the place where things are going to be different, but just how so, is anyone’s guess.
And the story of the transfiguration shows us three disciples
in a liminal moment, where things were new and different
and, honestly, a bit frightening.
Peter and James and John want to build shelters for them
mainly because it was something that they knew how to do
and they felt like doing something might settle everything down
make it more normal
more like it used to be.
They were trying to temper the situation, really.
To control it.
But they really couldn’t. This was happening. It wasn’t up to them.
This was something God was doing.
And God has a way of shaking things up sometimes.
But worry not, says Jesus.
All is ok.
God’s got this.
I’m here with you.
Let’s go back down the mountain and finish our business,
doing the things you have learned about and seen in me,
because it will shake up this world
in the best ways imaginable.
We start Lent this week, with Ash Wednesday marking the beginning
of this season of self-reflection and humility and preparation.
This story of Jesus’ transfiguration is often the way we set the stage for Lent.
I think it helps us understand our tendencies during confusing times
and offers us a way forward in every one of them,
listening to the promises God has for us,
looking for God there, accompanying us
and trusting that God’s grace is enough to get us through
that we will be just fine.
There’s plenty in our world to be confused about these days.
Are we in a paradigm shift right now? Who knows.
Maybe, maybe not.
Maybe more than one.
These sorts of things are only ever understood looking back upon it.
But what I do know
is that God is faithful still,
and that if we seek to lean on God’s love and God’s compassion
and to make them our own,
we can get through anything
that if we let Jesus’ light shine
it will be enough to get us through.
May we, my dear friends,
remember that God’s love is called steadfast for a reason
that God’s compassion helps teach us what it means to be compassionate
that God’s power can bring about hope and possibilities that may seem impossible
or even foolish
and may we seek our own little ways
to do our part that the love and compassion and power of God shines forth
today, and everyday.
May it be so.
Image Credit: pixabay image by burjuva, no credit required. Found at https://pixabay.com/photos/goal-threshold-light-arch-arches-4322834/ (accessed February 23, 2020)