Behind The Curtain Of The Cosmos

“Christ did not enchant men; He demanded that they believe in Him: except on one occasion, the Transfiguration. For a brief while, Peter, James, and John were permitted to see Him in His glory. For that brief while they had no need of faith. [Then] the vision vanished, and the memory of it did not prevent them from all forsaking Him when He was arrested, or Peter from denying that he had ever known Him.” – W.H. Auden, A Certain World 

I’ve always been enchanted with Jesus’ Transfiguration. 

It’s one of those Gospel stories that is so filled to the brim with details that I discover something new every time I return to it. 

Moses and Elijah appear – representing both the Law and the Prophets.

God speaks from a cloud – not unlike the pillar of smoke that accompanied the Israelites post Egypt.

Peter requests to build dwelling places – honoring the traditional response to a divine moment only to be brushed aside by Jesus.

But this year I’m sitting with the fact that, as Auden notes, those three disciples saw Jesus in his glory and still abandoned him in the end.

The life of faith is a transfigured life in that, we cannot return to what we once were, but we’re always falling back into the same rhythms – God will not leave us to our own devices and yet, we sure are hellbent on returning to them over and over again. 

The disciples catch a glimpse behind the curtain of the cosmos and they still throw it all away.

While this should certainly give us pause, it should also give us encouragement – God does not give up on us even if (and when) we give up on God. 

Michael Kiwanuka’s “I’ve Been Dazed” has a melancholic feel but the lyrics point to something greater. For a singer/songwriter wrestling with self-doubt, the song stands as a witness to the power of music. The repetitious “The Lord said to me / Time is a healer / Love is the answer / I’m on my way” feels as if the words could’ve been on the lips of Jesus heading down from the mountain knowing that Jerusalem was hanging on the horizon.

One of my favorite musical moments occurs when an artist blindsides the listener with a change in tone and feel midway through the song. Loving’s “If I Am Only In My Thoughts” hits with this one guitar note right in the middle that leads into a simple solo with all sorts of ear-wormy goodness. Similar to Kiwanuka’s “I’ve Been Dazed,” the song, to me, feels reminiscent of Christ’s Transfiguration.

Finally (because, how could I not include it?) we’ve got Sufjan Stevens’ “The Transfiguration.” I will never forget hearing the opening banjo strumming live in Asheville NC more than a decade ago, and a huge crowd joining together in one voice at the end to triumphantly declare: “Lost in the cloud, a voice. Have no fear! We draw near! / Lost in the cloud, a sign. Son of man! Turn your ear. / Lost in the cloud, a voice. Lamb of God! We draw near! / Lost in the cloud, a sign. Son of man! Son of God!”

The Strange American Dream

“I suppose I’ve always thought that Christianity isn’t really an optimistic religion. After all, it tells us that when the Son of God, Jesus Christ, comes to live with us, we end up killing him. But it is a hopeful religion because it also says that’s not the end of the story. When we’ve done the worst we can think of, there is still something that God does – God has resources that we don’t. So when kill Jesus Christ, he is raised from the dead. God turns the worst we can experience, the worst we can do to each other, and God turns that into a way of coming closer to us. Christianity is a profoundly hopeful religion because we trust in God’s ability to bring life out of death, rather than our own ability to do the best that we can.” – Dr. Jane Williams 

In this time after Epiphany but before Lent, the lectionary texts regale us with stories of those who are called by God. We hear about Samuel sleeping in the temple, some fishermen down by the sea, and even Jonah (reluctantly) warning the Ninevites about the wrath to come. And, sadly, there is a righteous temptation to so read ourselves into those stories that we walk away from worship thinking more about what we need to do for God and less about what God has already done for us.

Trusting in God’s ability to do more than we ever could really is is at the heart of the Christian witness.

As someone who consumes more music than I’m proud to admit, here are some tunes that, to me, reflect God’s primary agency in the life of faith. 

The Decalogue is a 2017 soundtrack album composed by Sufjan Stevens (and performed by Timo Andres) to a ballet of the same name. The ten tracks correspond with the Ten Commandments handed down at Sinai and each of them offer a little world worth resting in. “V” begins with rising arpeggios that, tonally, stay with the listener long after the song ends. The commands in scripture can easily fall into the category of “what we do for God” but this offering from Sufjan forces us to reflect on the One who gives these commandments to us in the first place.

I was recently introduced to the music of Andy Shauf and I keep getting lost in the brief narratives of his songs. In “Neon Skyline” the protagonist invites a friend to a bar of the same name to join him as he “washes his sins away.” The rest of the lyrics paint the scene of the evening in which there’s nothing better than wasting a bit of time. I can’t help but think about God “wasting” time with us whether it’s continually making something of our nothing, or actually being the One who washes our countless sins away. 

My final offering this week is, perhaps, a little too on the nose, but I couldn’t help myself. Rayland Baxter’s “Strange American Dream” feels incredibly prescient in our particular moment and I will let the song speak for itself, particularly the chorus: “Now the world world is wired up / On the red, white, and the green / And all the boys and girls are growin’ up / In a strange American dream.”

What makes the American dream so strange, at least to Christians, is that we are forever being told to make something of ourselves when, in fact, God is the one who makes something of all of our nothings.

Lord, Come With Fire!

The crew from Crackers & Grape Juice has started putting together a bi-monthly newsletter with exclusive essays/sermons/reflections from some of our favorite theologians. My humble contribution is a playlist. You can sign up for the newsletter here: CGJ+ and you can check out my playlist for the beginning of Advent below:

Punch Brothers – O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

Sufjan Stevens – Justice Delivers Its Death

The Shins – We Will Become Silhouettes (cover)

Here, in the midst of a world drowning in bad news, it’s not hard to imagine raising our clenched fists to the sky and shouting, “God! Where the hell are you?” 

That is an Advent question – perhaps the Advent question.

Therefore, an authentically hopeful Advent spirit is not looking away from the darkness and filling our lives with fluff in order to deny the truth. Instead, we pray for the Holy Spirit to give us the courage and the conviction to look straight into the muck and the mire of this life.

For, in the end, that’s exactly where God chose, and still chooses, to show up for us…

Chris Thile, front man for the Punch Brothers and recent host of “Live From Here,” is a mandolin-picking genius. His tunes have been categorized in genres from acoustic folk to progressive bluegrass to modern classical. He, along with the Punch Brothers, put forth a version of O Come, O Come Emmanuel that does the delicate balance of lifting the original melody and lyrics with a new sensitivity – with each passing verse more instruments and harmonies are added until its righteous conclusion.

Any fan of CGJ knows that I am a big fan of Sufjan Stevens – so much so that the rest of the crew often ridicules me for it. Hopefully, the more of his music I put on these playlists, the more they will accept his genius. Stevens has released a ton of Christmas/Advent covers over the years, but his original song Justice Delivers Its Death haunts me. The declaration of “Lord, come with fire!” comes straight from the prophet Isaiah and it offers a melodic corrective to the saccharine quality of too many Advent/Christmas songs. 

Whether we like to admit it or not, Advent is an inherently apocalyptic season in the liturgical calendar – it places us squarely between the already and not yet, the once and future King, the arrival and the return of Jesus Christ. And yet, the apocalyptic tension of Advent is not necessarily as grim and frightening as it is made out to be (in certain churches). The Shins cover of the Postal Service’s We Will Become Silhouettes embodies a hopeful character while the lyrics are strikingly scary. To me, it captures the essence of a hopeful and realistic Advent of looking straight into the darkness knowing that the dawn is coming. 

Pay Attention

Screen Shot 2020-02-17 at 8.18.27 AM

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for Transfiguration Sunday [A] (Exodus 24.12-18, Psalm 2, 2 Peter 1.16-21, Matthew 17.1-9). Drew is a United Methodist Pastor serving Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including a face like the sun, locating the Transfiguration, apocalyptic language, refining fires, upending expectations, witnesses, the power of a pinhole, the strange new world of the Bible, and Sufjan Stevens. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Pay Attention

Do You Hear What We Hear?

Crackers-Banner-1

Christmas Eve is days away and the team behind Crackers & Grape Juice decided to put together a podcast episode with our favorite Christmas music. We come from a variety of places and our musical tastes reflect our strange and various influences. If you would like to listen to the episode, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: Do You Hear What We Hear?

636169111672408480521702275_christmasmusic

Song List:

The Oh Hello’s – Cold Is The Night
Tom Waits – Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis
The Washington Chorus – The Dream Isaiah Saw
Nat King Cole – O Holy Night
Sufjan Stevens – Christmas Unicorn

The End Is Music

Crackers-Banner-1

A few weeks ago I sat down with Jason Micheli, Teer Hardy, and Johanna Hartelius to record a Crackers & Grape Juice conversation in which we talked about the music that moves us. We were inspired by the late theologian Robert Jenson who once wrote that the end (of all things) is music. We each took two turns playing a particular song (both sacred and secular) and then unpacked how each song affected us theologically. We covered music and genres from Swedish Hymns to Sufjan Stevens. If you would like to listen to the episode, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: The End Is Music

IMG_3956

This is me realizing how much time it was going to take to edit the episode.

Mountains and Valleys – Sermon on Mark 9.2-8

Mark 9.2-8

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.

the-transfiguration

And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.

Six days later. An innocuous beginning to our scripture today. In order to properly experience the depth of the transfiguration, we have to go back six days in the life of Jesus and his disciples. Before hiking the mountain with the inner circle of Peter, James, and John, Jesus asked the disciples about his identity. “Who do people say that I am?” “Well Jesus, some call you John the Baptist, and others call you Elijah or one of the prophets.” “Okay, but who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Messiah.

Jesus then immediately taught his disciples about his impending death, and predicted his resurrection for the first time; “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” Peter, the great representative for the rest of the disciples, the great representative for all of us, pulled Jesus aside and began to rebuke him for making such claims: “the messiah cannot be rejected by the elders and be killed Jesus, thats not what a messiah is supposed to do.”

Jesus quickly stopped Peter in his tracks, “Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

And so, six days later, perhaps when the disciples needed a reinforcement of faith after such a strange episode, the inner circle was invited by Jesus to the top of a mountain. I can imagine their wavering faith as they slowly walked along the path, unable to comprehend the new understanding of what it meant for their Lord to be the Messiah.

In the cool of the morning, with the dew still hanging in the air, Jesus was transfigured before the disciples. His clothes became dazzling white beyond human comprehension. And there, on either side of Jesus appeared Elijah and Moses. Then Peter said aloud, perhaps while cowering in fear, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Suddenly, a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a great voice: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” And when they looked around, they saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus.

4, Example 2a, The Saviour's Transfiguration, an early-15th century icon from the Tretyakov Gallery, attributed to Theophanes the Greek

Today, we celebrate Transfiguration Sunday. In the life of Jesus the Transfiguration was a defining moment that would come to determine the course of his mission to the world. From this point forward the trajectory of Jesus and his disciples was set toward Jerusalem. For the modern church, Transfiguration Sunday is celebrated immediately before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. Just as the Transfiguration trained the disciples’ eyes to the coming death and resurrection of Jesus, so too we are training ourselves to make our way through the coming forty days of Lent preparing for the celebration of Easter.

What do you think of this story? It has forever been a favorite of mine for many reasons. What does the appearance of Elijah and Moses mean for the disciples and Jesus? What must it have felt like to be there with Peter, James, and John to have witnessed Jesus transfigured before them? How powerful and enveloping was the cloud and God’s voice declaring Jesus as his Beloved? A whole sermon series could be devoted to these 7 verses. However, today we are going to focus on Peter’s peculiar request to build three dwellings on top of the mountain.

Peter is both frightened and ignorant. Within the last week he had made the stunning confession of Jesus as the Christ and then he was connected with the likes of Satan and commanded to move behind Jesus. Like many Christians, Peter was willing to go wherever Christ called him, though that didn’t necessarily mean he understood everything that was going on. This event had to have been remarkable for the three disciples present. In a brilliant fashion Jesus was validated as the Son of God. In spite of the shock regarding his own suffering and approaching death, this transfiguration confirmed him as the Lord’s anointed, the beloved Son.

Perfectly timed as a reinforcement for the disciples’ faith, particularly in the wake of Peter’s movement between perfection and ignorance, Peter responds to this glorious moment with the desire to build three dwellings. Behind his words was the need to prolong the experience. Who among us would not want to stay up there on the mountaintop with the transfigured Jesus flanked by Moses and Elijah? This was a moment high worth; the true, embodied, and illuminated understanding of Jesus. It was an experience that any of us would have liked to make permanent. However, life is not made up of mountaintops alone, for every glorious mountain there is a equally draining valley. It was good for Peter to experience the transfiguration, but it was NOT good for him to try and prolong the experience. Life must continue to move on.

A few months ago I was blessed with the opportunity to preside over my first wedding. Brian and Sarah are a delightful couple and I was thrilled with the invitation to join them together in marriage. The wedding went off without a hitch, well thats not exactly true, I had to remind the nervous father of the bride to stand with her until he gave her away, and then I had to direct him to sick back down after he had finished. Nevertheless, when it came time for the homily, I stood before Brian and Sarah, remarking about the sanctity of marriage and the role that God plays in all of our unions. I ended the homily with something I tell all couples preparing for marriage:

1175334_605087304526_1820722616_n

“From this point forward your individual stories are coming together. I want to tell you something that most will try to claim the contrary. Today will NOT be the happiest day of your lives. If you limit the joy of what you can experience in marriage to this one particular Saturday afternoon, it will cease to be organic and life-giving but instead repetitive and dull. You have an incredible story in front of you, one that has yet to be written, you are traveling as strangers into a strange land. There will be countless mountains and valleys and so much of your horizon is still beautifully unwritten.

Like Peter, many of us want to desperately hold on to those “transfigured” moments of our lives. We want to experience events where we get a little slice of heaven, but as soon as they fall in our laps we are often unwilling to let them go. The excitement of Christmas is often replaced by the anxiety and dull atmosphere of January. The beauty of a newborn baby is quickly rivaled by the long nights of crying and wailing. The joy of summer break from school flies by too quickly and before we know it we are sitting in a new classroom surrounded by unfamiliar faces. Life is made up of both mountains and valleys. Neither one can, nor should, last forever.

shenandoah-blue-ridge_2014_600x450

Transfigured moments are all around us, particularly here in worship. Worship is supposed to be a shining hour, high and lifted up, an event where the glory of God the Father, Son, and Spirit shines radiantly throughout our space. Like the disciples gathered on the mountain, worship is supposed to surround us like a cloud when Jesus and his revelation of God are made known to each of us. Worship, when done well, produces a glow unlike anything else on earth. Worship, beauty, joy, love; all of these are those wonderful transfigured moments that surround us daily. A life that has no transfigured hours of worship is poor, no matter how rich and decadent the elements may be.

So, just think for a moment, imagine the many areas in which the mood of Peter, when he said, “Lets just stay here” blocks the possibilities of life. Life cannot just be one big wedding celebration, nor can it be replaying our favorite song over and over and over again, nor can it be a endless worship service here at St. John’s. Whether we like it or not, we cannot stay on top of the mountain forever, we have to move and go on to new experiences of life, faith, and understanding.

As the disciples grew closer and closer to their Lord, his words and proclamations became increasingly difficult to understand and follow. While making their way to the inevitable result of Jerusalem, the disciples needed to hear Jesus. The voice from the cloud echoed out, “listen to him!” and I can think of no better words for all us to hear this morning.

When I was 16, standing on the sidewalk along Ft. Hunt road in Alexandria, Virginia on a cold and dark December evening my life was forever changed. I am a product of “listening to him.” I stand before you as the pastor serving this church because I was enveloped in that strange cloud of God’s grace, without a big booming voice, without particular words, and yet I somehow knew that I could do nothing with my life other than serving the church. My life has been filled with mountaintop experiences, some of them on literal mountain tops, but there have also been deep and seemingly endless valleys.

And so, what are to make of us this Transfiguration? That day when he took the three disciples to the mountainside to pray, his countenance was modified, his clothing was aflame. Two men appeared, Moses and Elijah came. Lost in the cloud a voice, have no fear, we draw near, lost in a cloud, a sign, Son of Man turn your ear.

We are just like those disciples standing on the mountainside with Jesus. We are given glimpses of heaven regularly in our lives. We are blessed to be showered with transfigured moments if we have eyes to see and ears to hear. However, life must be made of both mountains and valleys. Like the disciples we are called to listen to Jesus when the time comes to re-enter the reality of life. We have the privilege of listening to Jesus and having his words become incarnate in the ways that we live our lives.

lord__s_supper_by_bclary-d37hhzp

If you want to truly experience a transfigured moment in your life, look no further than this table with the gifts of bread and wine. This banquet that has been prepared for you and me is an encounter with the divine, it is a little slice of heaven for us. This is our mountaintop, that incredible and glorious moment when Jesus’ true radiance shined in a way unlike anything else on earth. In this communion we are brought into union with the triune God, we are nourished with the grace of God for our journeys of faith. 

So, as we prepare to feast at Christ’s table, remember that we cannot stay on the mountain forever. We will depart from this place and enter the world filled with the body and the blood. Listen to him in the valleys of life knowing that we are always going on to something new and wonderful. Let us all strive to be transfigured and delight in God’s will, walking in his ways forever. God is with us at the wedding receptions and in the hospital waiting rooms, God is with us when we fall and love and when we lose our jobs. God is with us when we cradle new-born children for the first time and when they leave us to begin their own lives. God is with us on the highest mountains and in the deepest valleys. Listen to him.

Amen.

 

Son of Man, Son of God

In preparation for Transfiguration Sunday (March 2, 2014)

 

“The Transfiguration” by Sufjan Stevens

When he took the three disciples to the mountainside to pray

his countenance was modified, his clothing was aflame

Two men appeared, Moses and Elijah came

They were at his side

The prophecy, the legislation spoke

Of whenever he would die

 

Then there came a word of what he should accomplish on the day

Then Peter spoke, to make of them a tabernacle place

A cloud appeared in glory as an accolade

They fell on the ground

A voice arrived, the voice of God

The face of God covered in a cloud

 

What he said to them, the voice of God, the most believed son

Consider what he says to you, consider what’s to come

The prophecy was put to death, was put to death

And so will the son

And keep your word, disguise the vision

Till the time has come

 

Lost in the cloud, a voice

Have no fear, we draw near

Lost in the cloud, a sign

Son of man, turn your ear

 

Lost in the cloud, a voice

Lamb of God, we draw near

Lost in the cloud, a sign

Son of man, son of God