“This first Christmas was not a magical holiday homecoming story full of family turkey dinners, carol singing and football games. It did not involve decorating trees, baking cookies and opening wrapped gifts.Rather, the first Christmas is a refugee story.And it tells of a young, poor, homeless asylum seeking couple who fearfully flee their country and become residents in a foreign land in order to save their child’s life.And yet, this story is also a story of hope. It is in the midst of this violent and fearful event when God shows up in the flesh: not as a king who has worldly power, and not as one who is distant and does not understand the plight of the marginalized. Rather, God shows up as one of the marginalized. God shows up in the flesh in a dirty stable, as a vulnerable baby, to a terrified young homeless couple on the margins of society.”
Today I’m writing over at RevGalBlogPals.
“Jesus says: ‘Be alert at all times.’
In other words: wake up and stay woke. And when you see the suffering and injustice of this world, look for the ways God is calling you to proclaim justice and peace and to offer God’s love to those in need. And then rise up and act.
This can be daunting when our news feed constantly updates us on one horrific tragedy after another. The world’s needs just seem too great.
Yet, Jesus does not end here.
‘Hold onto the hope of my return,’ he says, ‘so that your hearts are not weighed down with worries of this life.’ Raise your heads so that you might also see signs of the Kingdom of God that are already present and sprouting up like leaves on a fig tree. Look for signs that God is with us now and that the reign of God is near.
You see, it is necessary for us to find hope as we look for the signs of how God’s Kingdom is already present in this world. No, we must not ignore or downplay the injustice and suffering around us. However, in times such as these, we will not be able to rise up if we only focus our eyes on what is terrible.
So this Advent, may we slow down and choose to be alert.
You can read the full article here.
“He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.
Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.” – Mark 6:1-13
Many of you might know that last week Pastor Michael and I were in Houston with 13 youth and 2 young adult leaders for the ELCA Youth Gathering, where 30,000 youth from all over the country and even across the world gather once every three years for worship, to hear speakers, to participate in service learning projects with local organizations, to learn about multiple areas of injustice and how our faith calls us to respond, and – of course – to also have a lot of fun.
This year, our youth group also gathered with about 700 other youth and adults for the Multicultural Youth Leadership Event, which is a pre-Youth Gathering event that seeks to empower youth of color and multicultural youth groups to grow in their faith, develop as leaders, and build awareness and acceptance of one another’s cultural backgrounds and differences.
During the Multicultural Youth Leadership Event, which is the most diverse gathering of Lutherans in the ELCA, our youth and leaders had so many powerful experiences as we sang and danced to global worship music together, talked with and heard the stories of people from all over the country and some from across the world, shared our own personal and family stories – some which included painful stories about our youth’s experiences with racism, and our group started a community garden for refugee families who are new to the Houston area.
Once the Multicultural Youth Leadership Event ended, the main ELCA Youth Gathering began. The theme for this year’s gathering was: “This Changes Everything,” and throughout the week we heard so many inspirational and challenging stories and messages about how God’s radical love, grace, and hope do – in fact – change everything.
While the worship we experienced and the messages we heard were remarkable, what was most powerful for me was seeing how our youth truly embodied the hands and feet of Christ as they created a safe and caring space for one another to be truly themselves, as they befriended and encouraged youth from other church groups, and as they organized and led 300 youth and adults from our Metro-Chicago synod in a rally and march calling for an end to the separation and detainment of families at the border. Several of our youth spoke – both in English and Spanish – led chants and songs, invited youth to call and write letters to their legislators, and two of our youth were even interviewed by Telemundo and the Houston Press. This was not easy for them to do for multiple reasons, esp. in times like these. Yet, despite the opposition they could have faced, these youth believed this was important, and for some of them, this was personal. So they proclaimed this good news. They were so courageous and they did a phenomenal job! I am extremely proud of them! They were an amazing representation of Edgewater!
After hearing and experiencing God’s love, grace, and hope last week in a variety ways (many of which were through our own Edgewater youth), we were then challenged to continue to share this good news when we returned to our home communities.
On our last night of the Youth Gathering, we heard from 11 year old transgender activist Rebekah Bruesehoff, who said: “I have a lot of support, but so many transgender kids don’t. Transgender kids are just like other kids. We need to be loved and supported… Hearts and minds can change. And I can change the world. I want people to know that it doesn’t matter our age. We can be hope for the church and all people. They need us. I have hope for a church where people are not just welcomed, but they are celebrated. We can make it happen… And you – each and every one of you – made in God’s image, are made to be hope in the church and made to be hope in the world. You are my hope.”
And we heard from poet Joe Davis, who said:
“This generation is the one that will disrupt fear with courage and status quo with radical hope. You are here for a reason: Not just for the future, but for the here and now. Show up unapologetically as your authentic self. The church and world need you… You are a generation that’s teaching us that enough is enough. Radical hope is when we celebrate not just what we see now, but what it can be. Things can and will be transformed. But there will be struggle, and we must practice this hope every day. This hope changes me. This hope changes you. This hope Changes Everything.”
Now, while many of the 30,000 youth and adults were inspired and transformed by the good news we heard and experienced last week, the call to share this good news when we return to our home communities is not always going to be easy. For we know it is not always going to be welcomed and accepted, even by those we are closest to.
And this was the case for Jesus’s homecoming in our Gospel text this morning, as well.
You see, in our passage in Mark, Jesus has just returned to his hometown – along with his disciples – and has begun teaching in his home synagogue. And yet, while this synagogue is filled with people who knew Jesus’ family, had hung out with Jesus when he was a boy, or had watched him grow up, they did not respond to his homecoming with welcoming arms.
When the Nazarenes hear him teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath day, many soon become astounded… And if there was any good sense of this word, it doesn’t last very long… as the Nazarenes soon take offense at him. “Where did this man get all of this?” they ask.
“Isn’t this the poor carpenter we’ve known all these years? Isn’t he the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? Aren’t these his sisters sitting right here? Isn’t he the son of Mary?” they sneer, as they remind each other of Jesus’ shameful origin: that he had been conceived by an unwed teenager. “How could this guy – this poor, carpenter with ordinary siblings and a mother with a disgraceful past teach with authority? How could his teachings and his actions have any sort of power at all?”
Now our text does not say what it was about Jesus and his teachings that offended this crowd in his hometown synagogue so much that they discredited and insulted him. However, if we look back at the preceding chapters in Mark, we could probably take a wild guess.
In the first several chapters of Mark’s gospel, we see that even from the very beginning, Jesus’ ministry is not what would have been seen as ordinary.
He’s cast out demons and stilled a storm. He’s performed miracles… on the Sabbath day. He’s touched and healed those who were deemed “untouchable”: the sick, a leper, a woman… who had been haemorraging… for years. He’s called twelve disciples to follow him – most of whom are just common fishermen and one who is a tax collector. He proclaims that the kingdom of God has come near and tells those who follow him not to keep anything hidden, but to bring all their secrets into the light.
He eats with the sinners and the tax collectors and then tells the religious – the righteous ones – to confess and repent of their sins.
Jesus was changing everything!
And he was already seen as such an offensive radical rule-breaker that by the time we get to Mark chapter 3, many of his followers say he is “out of his mind,” some of the religious leaders accuse him of being in line with Satan, himself, and even his very own family questions his abilities and rush to where he is teaching and try to restrain him.
And now here we are a few chapters and several radical teachings, actions, and miracles later. Jesus has definitely shaken things up a bit, and it’s only the sixth chapter in Mark.
And here in our text for today, after all the backlash he’s already received, Jesus has the nerve to come back to his hometown and to his home synagogue. And here – in the midst of the ones who’ve watched him grow up, he comes preaching this same kind of message. This same message that treats the outcasts and those who were “untouchable” as if they are equals and calls the religious and righteous to bring their secrets to light and confess and repent of their sins.
Who does this ordinary carpenter with a shameful family past think he is?
But the insults don’t stop Jesus. He lays his hands on a few more of those “untouchable” and cures them. And then – as he and his disciples leave Nazareth and go out into the villages, he gives his disciples authority and commissions them to go out into the world vulnerably – two by two – with nothing but a staff, the clothes on their backs, and the sandals on their feet.
They must rely on the people they meet to feed them and to provide them with a place to sleep. And yet Jesus tells them they must go out boldly, proclaiming that all should repent, and they must confront evil, cast out demons, anoint those “untouchable” with oil, and heal the sick.
Now, I don’t know about you, but if I were one of the disciples – who had just watched Jesus get opposed, insulted, and publicly shamed in his hometown synagogue, I would have probably thought quite hard about picking up all of my belongings and running in the opposite direction.
Because I’m sure it would have been very difficult for these disciples to give up their food, clothing, and social status – the things they were privileged to have and could rely on for their safety, comfort, and well-being. And it would have been very difficult for them to go out vulnerably and proclaim Jesus’ radical good news, with no confirmation that they could find people who would accept them and provide for them.
Sometimes I wonder how these disciples had the courage to follow Jesus and to go out risking so much, when it would have been much easier for them to ignore the cries of those around them and just go on living their normal every day lives, without having to face the suffering and injustice around them.
I think I wonder this about the disciples because sometimes I wonder this about myself. To be quite honest, there have been many times when I just want to pick up all of my belongings and hold tight to my own privilege and just pretend that the systemic injustice that continues to prevail throughout our country and world and the suffering it causes so many people do not exist.
Because this is the easier way. Because this way allows me to live in my comfortable bubble that I have the privilege of living in. It allows me to avoid any kind of shaming and opposition that those who speak out often face. It enables me to deny my own participation in and benefits from the unjust systems in our country that still privilege those like me while deeming those who are not as “less than.”
Because as a white, cis-gender, educated, middleclass, woman who is married to a man and who is a U.S. citizen with documentation, I have the privilege of being able to just shut everything around me out and to live my life without fear.
I can just go to my safe home – without ever being pulled over in my car or stopped and frisked on my bike ride home because of the color of my skin. I can walk home without fear that I could get jumped or called a derogatory name because of my religious affiliation, gender identity, or because of the gender identity of my spouse.
I can go to sleep every night knowing that my sister’s children will never be forcibly taken from her or that my parents will never get deported. I have the privilege of just getting to turn off the news and going about living my own comfortable life without having to think about those around this country who have to live in fear every single day.
And yet, this is not a privilege I get to hold onto when I follow Jesus. Because this is not Jesus’ way.
Because just as Jesus called out to the twelve disciples and commissioned them to acknowledge and let go of their grip on their privilege and to go out into the world boldly, he commissions ALL of his disciples to do so, as well. He commissions each one of us to share God’s radical love and to BE the hope that will – indeed – change everything.
Because when one member of our human family suffers, we ALL suffer.
During our last worship service at the Multicultural Youth Leadership Event, we heard Chicago Pastor Yehiel Curry explain that it is when we immerse ourselves with others who may look, speak, talk, believe, worship, and act differently than we do and get to know them, that we will begin to realize that we are more alike than we are different. And THIS IS WHAT CHANGES EVERYTHING!
He saw this taking place a lot at the Multicultural Youth Leadership Event this week. (And so did I. And wow: was it ever a beautiful image of the Kingdom of God!)
Pastor Yehiel went on to explain that we are one in Christ, because it is Jesus who brings down the walls of hostility that divide us. However, we – as the body of Christ – are called to bring down these dividing walls in our world, as well. And yet, in order to make change, we need to start within ourselves.
“When you change your heart, you can change your mind,” he said. “When you change your mind, you can change your community. When you change your community, you can change your city. When you change your city, you can change your state.
When you can change your state, you can change your nation. When you can change your nation, you can change your world. When you can say this is my brother, this is my sister, [this is my sibling], this is my family: THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING!”
And then we are truly ONE in Christ.
Day 7: (Saturday) was a great day. We began the day by sleeping in! (Yay!)
Some folks swam at the pool for a bit.
And then we went to the bus stop to catch our bus to the NRG Center.
We spent the rest of the afternoon in the Interactive Learning Center at the NRG center.
We first made our way to the Valparaiso University booth to say hello to former ECT youth group member and current college student, Kalleb.
Then we visited several other exhibits and learned about a variety of issues:
1. First stop was the #MeToo Exhibit:
2. Second stop was Lantern Hill Mexico: This is an education and nutrition program for impoverished children. This ministry seeks to break the cycle of poverty by ensuring children to stay in school instead of dropping out and working in fields or factories at young ages like many others in rural Mexico.
At the exhibit, we learned about the organization and painted designs and inspirational Spanish phrases on school benches for Mexican students in Ensenada.
3. Third stop was Peace Not Walls. Through accompaniment, advocacy and awareness-raising, Peace Not Walls connects ELCA members to our companions and promotes dignity, full respect for human rights, healing and reconciliation. With our Palestinian Lutheran companions, we also accompany Palestinians and Israelis, Jews, Christians and Muslims working together for peace with justice.
At the center, we learned a bit about the plight of Palestinians in Israel/Palestine.
4. Next, we visited the Reconciling Works Exhibit, an independent Lutheran nonprofit that works for the full welcome, inclusion and celebration of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQIA+) people in the Lutheran church. It is our vision that the church is a place where LGBTQ people and their families can worship and thrive, bringing all their God-given gifts to mission and ministry for the world. There, Pastor Michael Fick walked our group through the different flags and explained what they mean.
5. We stopped at the Racial Justice Ministries booth. The Racial Justice Ministries of the ELCA are catalysts and bridge-builders committed to the work of equipping leaders, training, building alliances and supporting ecumenical networks so that together, throughout the church in public witness, programs and policies advance racial justice – locally and globally.
6. We wanted to go to the LIRS (Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services) and AMMPARO booth that takes you through what it would be like as migrants and refugees seeking safety in a new land. The bad news was that the lines were so long that we were unable to make it through the exhibit. The great news is that 5000 people went through the excited and signed letters to their legislators.
Then we needed to have some fun…
Even and especially when we were waiting in long lines!
Mass gathering was full of fun and powerful speakers and worship.
Immanuel Lutheran’s very own Rev. Stephen Bouman spoke about what it was like to be Bishop in New York during 9/11.
The theme for the evening was God’s Hope Changes Everything. So Rev. Bouman said: “But hope cannot be crushed. There were many hero’s in the towers. The question often asked in tragedies “where the hell is God?” was being answered in small acts of compassion. God will use our hope to move our grief and anger into action.
I see you following Jesus who Changes Everything.
I see you: called to radical hope, being what you were born to be.
You are the church who will change everything.
Deborah D.E.E.P Mouton explained:
“Opposite of hope is not hate. It’s apathy. There is so much wrong that you can just right. There is so much more of you to give.”
Carson McCullar shared his powerful story about his addiction.
“I may have lost hope in me but God never did. No matter how hard things might be, there is a light of hope (for me it was through the friends and family who never gave up in me.)
Then Jamie Bruesehoff introduced her 11 year old daughter Rebekah, who shared her story.
Rebekah explained how sometimes as she began to under herself as transgender, she wondered: “Did God mess up? I’ve come to realize God does not make mistakes. God made me me.
I have a lot of support but so many transgender kids don’t.
Transgender kids are just like other kids. We need to be loved and supported.
Hearts and minds can change. I can change the world.
I want people to know that it doesn’t matter our age. We can be hope for the church and all people. They need us.
I have hope for a church where people are not just welcomed, but they are celebrated.
We can make it happen.
You – each and every one of you – made in God’s image are made to be hope in the church and made to be hope in the world. You are my hope.”
Finally, Joe Davis spoke. He explained:
“This generation is the one that will disrupt fear with courage and status quo with radical hope.
You are here for a reason: Not just for the future but for the here and now.
Differences are a gift. We are created for a purpose. Say you have a purpose not just in the church.
Show up unapologetically as your authentic self. The church and world need you.
You are a generation that’s teaching us enough is enough.
…Radical hope is when we celebrate not what we see now but what it can be. Things can and will be transformed. But there will be struggle, and so we practice this hope every day.
This hope changes me. This hope changes you this Hope Changes Everything.”
After the mass gathering, our brought beauty, a positive energy, and joy to those around us as we sang songs from MYLE.
What a wonderful day!
Today was a full day at the ELCA Youth Gathering!We started the morning by taking the train to the NRG Center.Once we arrived, we grabbed some food and hung out in the Interactive Center.And guess who I got to chat with for a while: Kalleb Miller (former E.C.T. Youth who is at the ELCA Youth Gathering as a representative for his college Valparaiso). It’s such a gift to be able to see youth grow into the people they are as young adults!Several of our youth took this time to prepare for the rally and march they would lead later that day in response to the family separations and family detentions.Since today was Synod Day, we gathered with the ELCA Metro-Chicago Synod for worship, fun bonding activities, and small group discussions.There, the ELCA Metro-Chicago Synod Bishop Wayne Miller preached about the woman at the well, who was isolated and shunned and yet Jesus appeared to her and showed up for her. This woman was a witness to his radical love.But this woman was not the kind of witness who just sees something take place but doesn’t do anything in response. Bishop Miller explained that being the kind of witnesses of Christ’s love that we are called to is not that easy.
He said: “We don’t remember the woman because of what she saw or heard. We remember her because of what she did.”Bishop Miller explained that the kind of witnesses we are called to be are those who don’t just see and hear things. Rather, we are called to be witnesses who respond to the injustices we see in the world and who speak out and take a stand.When we take the risks of being witnesses working for justice for all people, change can happen.The theme for Synod Day is “We Belong Together,” which seems like no coincidence, given that the National Families Belong Together day of action is June 30. So immediately after the synod day worship, our E.C.T. Youth and a few other youth invited the synod to be witnesses of God’s radical love and justice by speaking out and taking a stand against the separation of families and detainment of families at the border. We belong together! Families Belong together and in community (not in detention centers!)First, Ngbarazere and a youth from another church asked the synod to call their legislators and then to participate in a few action stations (put on a yellow Families Belong Together wristband and share one with someone they meet that day, decorate cards for children in detention centers, sign letters to legislators, and participate in a social media campaign.)Following the action stations, the group gathered together for a picture with Bishop Miller…And then we prayed with our feet by going on a short march, which was led by the processional cross.We ended in front of a statue of a family being reunited.Several of our E.C.T. youth spoke and/or led chants and songs during the rally, including Melanie, Xanath, Jenny, Maku, Johnny, and Ngbarazere.And Melanie and Xanath were interviewed by Telemundo and Houston Chronicle.
Houston Press also picked up the story and published:
1. Slideshow with 40 pictures featuring ECT and other Chicago area Youth found here.
2. This article quoting two ECT youth (who were key leaders/speakers/chanters/singers in the rally and march) found here.
These youth did an incredible job and truly were bold witnesses proclaiming the good news of God’s love for ALL people! This is what it means to be the Church: the body of Christ.
I am sooo incredibly proud of all our youth for showing up and bearing witness, leading us in what Jesus said is the greatest commandment- loving God and loving our neighbor – and showing us what it means to live out our call to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God! In times such as these, it is these youth who inspire me, teach me, and give me hope that we will indeed have a better world!God’s Love Changes Everything! This Changes Everything!
After the rally, we ate, chilled a bit in the interactive center, and then headed to our mass gathering with 30,000 ELCA youth and leaders in the NRG Stadium.The theme for the night was God’s Love Changes Everything. We heard from Rev. Aaron Fuller, ELCA pastor and command chaplain, who said:”Life is hard, but we shouldn’t have to do it alone. It is because of the people who have shown me love, that I experience God’s love…
We all know that people in our world need us to walk alongside them. They don’t need us to try to fix their problems. They just need us to love them.We love people so they will know their lives are a gift, so they know that their lives matter, and so they know that they are not alone.God’s love moves us past our fears and prejudices.”We were reminded by Deacon Erin Power that in times like these, people (including us) need to hear over and over and over again: “you belong here.”
And we heard from Marlon Hall that:
“You were born to make an indelible mark on the world that no one else can make. You do this by the love of God.God’s loves can grow up from the ashes of our burnt expectations.”We were also led in some incredible worship.placeholder://After our mass gathering, we took the train home and ended our night checking in with each other about our day.And of course there was some fun during free time at the hotel:We are looking to forward to what tomorrow brings us!
“Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.”
– Mark 9:2-10
Strange things happen on the top of steep hills and mountains.
I have learned this from experience. Several years ago, when Jonathan and I were in Ireland, we decided we would walk St. Brandon’s Pilgrim Path, an 11 mile ancient Christian pilgrimage that is believed to have first been walked in the late 500s. This path begins along the seaside and then takes you through fields with beautiful scenic views and ancient heritage sites along the route.
When Jonathan and I asked the one taxi driver in the small town we were staying in if she could pick us up at the end of the path, she laughed… and then told us: “Just call me when you get tired…” And when we looked a bit confused, she added: “It’s not as easy as you might think.”
And boy was she right! The trail was hilly and windy, often taking us through long patches of tall grass and weeds that were up to our knees, private fields, thick mud, and rugged terrain.
Once we passed Kilmalkedar Church, an early Christian and later Medieval site, the next several miles of the path were even more difficult and off the grid. As we hiked up a very long, steep hill with only a few small hand painted trail markers to show us the way, the incline got steeper, the winds stronger, the sky darker, and the fog thicker.
When a trail marker directed us to walk through a closed gate, we found ourselves walking uphill through a private sheep farm. This final part of the journey was fun… at first. But after a while, the fog got so thick we could barely see anything around us, not to mention: where we were going. At one point I screamed, as two sheep seemed to appear out of nowhere – frantically running through the fog just two feet in front of us.
And when we tried to backtrack our steps so we could find a place to call and meet our taxi driver, as I took a step on what seemed to be the ground, I ended up falling through one of the many thorn bushes that we soon realized we were surrounded by and that were quite deep and wide. By this point, we had not seen a trail marker for about an hour, we had no phone service, and I was starting to wonder if we were ever going to make it back to our cabin.
Our only hope was to keep going up to the top of the hill, which we still could not see. So we just kept cautiously walking.
But once we eventually got to the top, something else strange happened. The fog thinned out, we could see things a lot more clearly, and the exhausting and – yes – quite terrifying – journey we took to get to where we were all of us sudden seemed worth it. As we looked out over the other side of the hill, we could see some of the most incredible views of Mt. Brandon and miles upon miles of the beautiful Irish countryside. And as we looked down the side of the hill that we had just climbed, we could see the tiny steeple of Kilmalkedar Church off in the distance down below, and the path we took from there seemed to be a little more apparent than before. (Although, I am not going to lie, our journey back down to Kilmalkedar Church was still a bit terrifying.)
Yes, strange things happen on the top of steep hills and mountains.
And this is the case for the disciples in our Gospel text this morning. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John and leads them on what is most likely a long, arduous journey through windy, hilly, and rugged trails and unmarked fields up a high mountain. And when they finally get to the top of the mountain, Jesus is transfigured before them. His appearance changes, and he begins to glow. His clothes become dazzling white, so much so that no one on earth could bleach them, our text says. And then – when you think things could not get anymore weird, they do. Because suddenly out of nowhere, the long departed Moses and Elijah appear before the disciples and begin talking to Jesus.
Such strange things are happening on top of this mountain, that you might expect David Harpour – star of the popular Netflix show Stranger Things – to suddenly appear saying: “It must be a tide ad!” (If you watched the Super Bowl commercials, you know what I am talking about.)
But this is not a tide commercial. It’s the transfiguration. And it is a very strange scene.
So strange that Peter stumbles over his words because he doesn’t know what to say, for he and the other disciples are terrified.
And it’s no wonder they are. They had just seen this strange thing happen on the mountaintop. Here, for the first time, they see Jesus in a completely new light. (Both figuratively and literally).
And many of us know that once we see Jesus in a completely new light, there is no turning back. Everything changes. Sure, eventually we have to go back down the mountain to our every day life, but we do so with a new perspective and with a heart that is open to being transformed.
This is true with any kind of “mountain top” experience where we encounter Jesus in a new light. We begin to see things more clearly. These mountain top experiences may take place during a powerful worship service, at a large Christian gathering (like a conference, prayer retreat, or an ELCA Youth Gathering), or on a mission or service-learning trip.
Or maybe this mountain top experience takes place when we hold our child or our grandchild for the first time, when we hear someone else’s story, when someone sits with us in our pain, when we spend time taking in the nature around us, or when we develop relationships with our neighbors of other faiths and realize that God is so much bigger than we had imagined.
Maybe this mountain top experience is when we are volunteering at the local food pantry and realize for the first time that Jesus is not just working through us and our acts of service to our neighbors experiencing homelessness or hunger. Rather, through our neighbor, Jesus is actually speaking to us.
Or maybe our mountain top experience is when we first attend an anti-racism training or read a book on economic injustice and we begin to recognize our own privilege and prejudices and how they contribute to systemic inequalities.
Here on the mountaintop, Jesus transfigured before the disciples, and now the disciples are being transformed.
The journey the disciples had taken thus far in following Jesus is now seen with news eyes. And the same goes for the journey they would soon take in following Jesus back down the mountain, into the valley, and soon thereafter onto Jerusalem and toward the cross.
But this is – indeed – terrifying. Having this mountain top experience meant that their lives were going to change going forward. For the disciples, this means that soon Jesus will no longer be with them on this earth. How could they continue this ministry on their own? Were they even qualified to do this work? Were they good enough? Were they adequate enough?
It’s no wonder Peter suggests they build three dwellings – or tabernacles – at the top of the mountain (a common ancient practice to mark places where God’s people had a holy encounter.) For these disciples, this was surely a holy place. Plus, if they built the tabernacles, the disciples could stay in this holy space for a while, which could buy them some time before they had to come back down from the mountain top and face the hardships that come in the valley below, knowing who Jesus is and what and who Jesus stands for.
But just as Peter suggests this, a cloud overshadows the disciples, and a voice comes from the cloud saying: “This is my Son, the Beloved.”
I love this response to Peter and the other disciples as they are overcome with fear. Because it reminds us of Jesus’ baptism, when the voice from heaven cries out: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
I love this because whenever we recall Jesus’ baptism, we are also reminded of our own. Just as Jesus was named God’s beloved child in his baptism, so too are we – in ours.
No matter how terrified Peter may have been about what was to come and about how Jesus was calling him to live, and no matter how inadequate or unqualified to do this work he might have felt, Peter is God’s beloved child. No matter how terrified, inadequate, or unqualified we might feel about coming down from the mountaintop and living out our call in the valley alongside those most vulnerable and marginalized, we are God’s beloved children, as well.
But the voice in the cloud does not end there.
“This is my Beloved Son,” the voice calls out. “Listen to him.”
When Peter saw Jesus in a new light, he was quick to speak. To give his two cents. To find a quick fix for the situation and for his fears.
And to be quite honest, aren’t we all quick to speak and slow to listen?
But the voice from the cloud calls on Peter to listen first.
You see, when we see Jesus in a new light, we are not just immediately transformed. This is a process and it requires a lot of listening and a lot of self-reflecting. We must be slow to speak and quick to listen. We must listen to God. Listen to our neighbors. Listen to ourselves.
I love what Mother Teresa told CBS anchor Dan Rather when he asked her what she said during her prayers. She answered: “I listen.” And when Dan asked her: “Well then, what does God say?” she smiled and answered: “He listens.”
It might seem strange that this morning we are on the mountaintop for Jesus’ transfiguration – which takes place toward the end of his public ministry – and then next week we go back to Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness – before Jesus’ ministry even begins. And yet, I think it makes sense that we are on the mountaintop this morning before we begin our Lenten journey through the wilderness this Wednesday.
Because I think this is similar to real life. Isn’t life often like a roller-coaster ride, bringing us from the mountaintop right down to the valley and into the wilderness and then on toward the cross before we can experience the resurrection… just before the roller-coaster ride begins again.
The disciples needed the mountaintop in order to see things more clearly before they followed Jesus toward the cross and onto what came next. They needed this as a holy place to begin their journey of transformation.
And so do we.
As Thomas Jay Oord wrote in his commentary on this text in the Christian Century magazine this week: “Mountains can bring us to attention. Sometimes we need to be atop a mountain to remember our reason for the journey. Mountains can give us the novel perspective we need to make sense of things; they can renew us. And sometimes only atop a mountain – after a grueling hike, with an aching body, oxygen-starved lungs, and sweat-drenced skin- can we truly hear the voice of wisdom: ‘this is my beloved son. Listen to him.’”
So this Lent, as we take this journey down from the mountaintop and into the wilderness, may we open our hearts to being transformed. May we choose to do this holy work of listening.
Today I’m writing over at Youth Specialties. (This was first posted at conversationsonthefridge.com.)
“Our silence tells our youth and families that the racist statements and beliefs of the President are normal, are true, and thus can be continued.
Our silence tells our youth of color and their families that not only are they not valued by their country and many of their country’s leaders, but that they are also not valued by us, by the Church, or even by God.
Our silence tells all of our youth and families that some people – based on skin color and/or country of origin – are superior to others.”
Click here to read the rest.
Today I’m blogging over at conversationsonthefringe.com:
“And as leaders in the church who work with youth, as Christians, and as members of the human race, we have a responsibility to call out racist stereotypes, words, actions, and beliefs for what they are and to denounce them… even and especially if they are carried out by our national leaders. When we do so, we begin to model for our youth how they – too – can and should call out and shut down stereotypes and racist remarks and actions, no matter whom the person is that is behaving in such a manner.
This is not a partisan issue. This is not about a political party or a particular politician. This is about the evil and harmful sins of racism and white supremacy. And they must be shut down.”
You can read the rest of the post here.
When we wonder if anything or anyone good can come out of that (“shithole”) continent, country, city, neighborhood, school, or whatever other place we label as inferior, let us just remember who Nathanael encountered after he said “Can anything good come out of (that shithole) Nazareth?”
(PS: I think it’s no coincidence that this just so happens to be the Lectionary Gospel reading for this Sunday.)
So, as Philip responded to Nathanael:
May we open our hearts and eyes and “come and see.”
“Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.” – Matthew 16:13-20
I don’t know about for you, but this passage is quite familiar to me. And one of the most popular claims I’ve heard about it is that this text is about Peter’s faith and great confession and it has been used as an example of how we might have faith in Jesus and confess who he is.
According to this interpretation, this passage is a turning point for Peter. After all, it was only a few chapters earlier when Jesus told Peter that he had little faith because he lacked trust in Jesus when he feared walking on water. Yet, here, in Matthew 16, Peter finally confesses who Jesus really is. When Jesus asks the disciples “who do you say that I am?” Peter speaks for the disciples and replies, “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
So it seems to make sense that this passage is about Peter’s turning point, faith, and confession.
However, if we look at the passage that immediately follows this one, we might see that there is something more to this passage. Starting in vs. 21, Jesus begins to tell the disciples that he MUST journey toward Jerusalem, suffer and die in the hands of the religious leaders, and be raised on the third day.
We would think that a disciple who truly understands who this Jesus – the Messiah, the Son of the living God – is, would accept what Jesus has to say about his mission – even if this disciple does so with reluctance and sadness. However, to our surprise, Peter responds to this by rebuking Jesus and saying: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen!” And to our even greater surprise, Jesus responds to Peter by calling him Satan and saying he is a stumbling block for only setting his mind on human things rather than on divine things.
And this isn’t the only time Peter does not seem to get it. For we all know it is HE who denies Jesus three times after Jesus gets arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane.
So maybe our Gospel text this morning is not just about Peter’s confession about who Jesus is. Maybe it’s about something more.
To better understand, we need to consider what these titles given to Jesus in Peter’s “confession” meant to both Peter and Jesus.
According to one source, (the Harper Collins Bible Dictionary) the Messiah was an “anointed agent of God, appointed to a task affecting the lot.” However, the title “Messiah” did not always suggest a divine being. In Ancient Israel/Palestine, this title referred to priests, anointed men who were kings of Israel, prophets, and even to the pagan king, Cyrus. It is not until the Babylonian Exile – where the Israelites were taken from their homeland and longed to return – when the Israelites began to write about a coming Messiah who would be their Savior in the midst of great suffering. And it is not until we read Paul’s letters when we begin to hear that Jesus, the Christ (which is the Greek translation for “Messiah”), is the one who fulfilled the Palestinian Jewish expectations of the coming Messiah.
The title “Son of God” is similar in that it was also used to allude to numerous persons and positions in Ancient Israel, including angels, monarchs when they were enthroned, and people who were considered to be righteous. According to one source, by the first century, this title referred to “a person or a people with a special relationship to God, often with a special role in salvation history.” (Harper Collins Bible Dictionary)
In order to better understand the importance of these titles, we might also consider the location in which Peter made this confession, Caesarea Phillipi. This city was the worldwide center of the Pagan religion that worshipped Pan, the god of shepherds and flocks. This religion involved lustful acts that followers would perform in order to worship Pan. In addition to this, the city represented the imperial power of the Roman Empire, which created a strong dominating hierarchy that uplifted the wealthy and the elite and oppressed the poor, the sick, and the outcasts of society. In fact, the city was given its name by King Herod the Great’s son, Phillip, when he came to power… And you can probably guess who it was named after: Caesar…and Phillip, himself.
Two temples stood in Caesarea Phillipi: one to honor and worship Caesar the great leader of the Empire and the other to honor and worship Pan. This city was basically considered the Sin City of its day, and most Jews would have completely avoided going there.
So, as you can see, this is not the place you might expect Jesus Christ, the Jewish Rabbi who was said to be the Messiah, the Son of the living God, to take his disciples to and ask them to confess who he really is. We might think that the Temple or one of the synagogues would have been a better place.
And yet, I think it is quite intentional that Jesus took his disciples to Caesarea Phillipi to reveal his identity to them. You see, in the Roman Empire, people were often forced to worship the empire and it’s leaders. Many of the leaders were even given titles such as “Savior,” “Lord,” and “Son of God.”
What’s more is that in Caesarea Phillipi, there was a cave where Pan was worshipped with a spring that flowed from it. The spring was thought to flow from underground – a place the Greeks referred to as Hades, and where the gods would spend their winters. And the source of the spring was called the Gates of Hades, the same phrase Jesus speaks of in our text.
Now in our passage for today, Jesus goes on to tell Simon Peter that his name shall be Peter, which means rock. And it is upon this rock – or Peter, the spokesperson of the disciples – where Jesus will build his Church. And nothing – not even the Gates of Hades – the location where the pagan gods representing imperial, oppressive power and where the gods exit and enter Hades – not even these gates will prevail against this body of Christ.
You see, it seems as though Caesarea Phillipi is the intentional place for Jesus’ identity to be revealed. It is here in the midst of this imperial and pagan center, where Jesus asks his disciples who they say he is, and Peter answers that it is Jesus – not the Caesar or Pan – who is the Messiah, the Son of the living God! It is this Jesus Christ, who will be the one who saves the people who are suffering from this oppressive empire and who is worthy of worship. And not even Rome or Jupiter or any other gods or imperial worldly powers will be able to prevail against him!
And we see throughout Matthew, that it is this Jesus Christ, the Messiah, who begins to bring about a new kingdom, the Kingdom of God, a kingdom so opposite of the oppressive Roman Empire that dominated over those on the margins.
A Kingdom that will even oppose, challenge, and tear down the hierarchical powers and forces of that Empire.
And this new kingdom is one where Jesus, the only truly great ruler and king – rules not with a militaristic, exclusive, and dominating power over others. But rather rules with love and equality and lives with and uplifts the poor and sick, the women and widows, the immigrants and ethnic minorities – those who were considered the last and least in society.
Now, we have come a long way since the first century. So it may seem very difficult for us to understand or even comprehend the repercussions of such a violent and oppressive Empire. And yet, I don’t think we have to listen too long to the local, national, and international news before we start to realize that the United States is dangerously moving toward a modern day Roman Empire.
Because don’t we live in a country where status and capitalism are often worshiped… And so while it is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, only a few individuals have the majority of wealth in this country while so many individuals are left without enough of an income to buy food for their families, provide housing, or afford adequate health care.
Don’t we live in a country with more resources than much of the rest of the world can even comprehend and with a fairly low population density. And yet, when 1000s of families from across the world seek refuge from war, we refuse to open our borders and when 1000s of unaccompanied children desperately cross the border in order to flee violence, we detain them, threaten to build a wall, and look at rescinding the DACA program, which protects immigrants without documentation who came to the US as children.
Don’t we live in a country where racism continues to prevail so much throughout our systems, that a sheriff is pardoned for his Civil Rights abuses – even though he had openly been racially profiling Latinx individuals and had bragged about mistreating Latinx folks while holding them in what he called a “concentration camp.” And don’t we live in a country where even when racism takes shape in such overt forms as what took place in Charlottesville – where the KKK, Neo-Nazis, and other white supremacists held tiki torches and chanted: “Blood and soil,” “Jews will not replace us,” and other horrific anti-LGBTQIA chants – even then, this white supremacist terrorism is downplayed by many, including by some of our highest political leaders?
Don’t we live in a country that proclaims its moral superiority over other nations and yet it spends more on the military than the next eight countries combined?
Today, our worship of the Caesars and Pan gods in the United States – our worship of capitalism, power, wealth, religion, and race – not only push so many people in our own country into the margins of society, but our nationalism – our worship of our country – leads us to view other nations and people of other ethnic and racial backgrounds as inferior to us and as less human than we are.
While it is okay and even important for us to recognize and be thankful for the many blessings we do have in our lives, we must always remember that while we may sing “God bless America,” God does not bless American any more than any other nation. And, as followers of Jesus, we can never worship a nation, social status, wealth, capitalism, a particular racial or ethnic group, or any other Caesar or pagan god. Because it is Jesus Christ – the Messiah, the Son of the living God – not Caesar or Pan, not the United States or any other nation, not our material possessions or our successful careers, not our military weapons, borders, politicians, or our powerful police forces. It is Jesus Christ and it is ONLY Jesus Christ who is our Lord and Saviour.
We hear this truth proclaimed throughout the Scriptures, and we particularly hear it preaching out of our text in Matthew today.
But our message does not end here with this confession of Peter about who Jesus is. As Jesus is about to start his journey to Jerusalem and toward the cross, he tells Peter an important thing: that although Jesus will leave this earth, his ministry of challenging and breaking down the oppressive imperial walls and forces and of spreading his good news of love and justice to ALL people – is not over.
This ministry will continue. It will first continue through Peter and the disciples who will be the rock on which Jesus will begin to build the Church… But it will also continue through all of Jesus’ disciples.
No longer does it matter that Caesar holds the keys to an oppressive kingdom that excludes those on the margins of society, because now it is Peter and ALL of Jesus’ followers who hold the keys and opens the doors to a new Kingdom that is built on love, peace, equality, and justice.
So we can see that our passage in Matthew begins with a confession, but it ends with commission. A commission not just to Peter, not just to the other eleven disciples, but to all of us who truly proclaim that it is Jesus – the Messiah, the Son of the living God – and it is ONLY this Jesus – who is our Lord.
We may wonder how on earth we are to respond to this commission. For some of us, it might start with listening to the voices around us who are being shut out and recognizing the Caesars and Pan gods we currently worship, benefit from, and/or defend… and learning to give them up. For others of us, it might be figuring out how to tear down the imperial powers that oppress and push people to the margins in Chicago, in the U.S., and throughout the world by learning about and spreading the word about such injustice, signing petitions, and standing with others at marches that demand justice. For others it might be figuring out how to open the doors of this Kingdom of God to the people in our midst who are being excluded by our present-day imperial systems.
However we may do it, we – as followers of Jesus – are called to not just confess who Jesus Christ is, but we are also called to respond to his great commission. So let us not just leave this place and go back to our busy schedules forgetting what we have heard and confessed this morning. But let us boldly and loudly respond to Jesus Christ, our Messiah, the Son of the Living God, both in word and in deed.