Sermons

“But You’re Different!” Rev. Dee Ledger; February 23, 2020

Perhaps you have had a major change in your life.  It could be positive: a move, a change in appearance, a loss of weight, a gain of energy, the ability to quit an annoying habit or addiction, or maybe just a slow maturation in your spirit that allows you to be less reactive and more proactive.  Or maybe the change has felt more negative: the loss of someone or something you dearly loved, a diminishment of your gifts or talents, an unwelcome career change, or a tragedy that left you picking up the pieces.  In either case, your friends and family might have noticed what the change did to your spirit or your outward behavior.  Perhaps it opened you up—making you more patience, present, and receptive, or perhaps it had the opposite effect—you become cranky in a way you never were before, or you’ve become  hyper-vigilant, frugal to a fault, or more critical of yourself or others.

While it is hard to know how change and circumstances will affect us, it is even harder to gauge how our friends and family will respond when we are going through a change.  Most of us do not have the time or the mental energy to deal with people’s reactions while we are still trying to process our own.

And that brings us to today’s text about Jesus taking a couple of his closest friends on a mountain hike and what transpired there.  What you need to know is that Jesus – just 6 days before—less than a week previous—had told his closest companions that he must go to Jerusalem, the center stage for his mission and ministry—and he must undergo great suffering and be killed.  This wasn’t welcome news. It’s like having a loved one tell you that they have dreaded disease, or that their days are limited, or that they are going to quit their job, move away, and start a new business in another state.

In fact, Peter—the so called “Rock” of the disciples—takes Jesus aside and begins to rebuke him.  Not just protest, but rebuke.  We rebuke our kids when they do something wrong.  We sometimes rebuke ourselves when we fail to live up to our own expectations of ourselves.  Peter rebukes Jesus and says, “God forbid it, Jesus!  This must never happen to you!”

Here we pause on that word “never.”  Have you ever told someone that they must “never” do something?  Have you ever used the word “never” in talking about what you might do or rather, what you would not or could not do?  I have.  “Never” and “always” are extremes.  We tend to think to ourselves, “I would never do that” or “I could never do that.”  We tell our children to “never” do something and while that it is usually for their own good, they still turn around and do it anyway regardless.  I don’t know what was going through Peter’s mind when he used the word “never” with Jesus, but he was thinking more about his own impression or ideas of a Messiah, rather than who Jesus is.  He had just confessed Jesus as the Anointed One, but that didn’t square with his ideas of what kind of mission or ministry Jesus had or would pursue.  We might use better care when we use the word “never” with ourselves or others.

Jesus, like our own friends, picks up on Peter’s failure to understand him.  Jesus’ own self-understanding and foresight was keener than his disciples. To Peter’s way of thinking, a Messiah doesn’t die.  In our minds, we may say, a friend must never abandon us, or become angry, or let us down.  Yet these expectations, like Peter’s, are unrealistic.  We try to spare ourselves when our friends or family talk about difficult things that they are experiencing.  We say, “It’s not that bad,” when we have no idea.  Or we qualify their statements in order to preserve our opinions of them, or our image of their personality, or whatever agenda we might have.  Or we try to talk them out of their reactions, trying to spare our feelings and our understandings, rather than exploring with them why they have come to certain conclusions—conclusions that may or may not be consistent with our own.  Jesus responds rather sharply to Peter after their exchange saying, “Get behind me, Satan!”  I wouldn’t recommend using that phrase the next time we are upset with our family pushing us in directions that are not for them to decide.

In any case, now it is 6 days later, and we are on a mountain hike with Jesus, Peter, James and John.  And something special happens up there on that mountain top which is difficult to describe and for the disciples to explain to themselves, much less to us.  Jesus is transfigured somehow; he glows.  Now the last thing our world needs right now is a glowing white savior.  So, we need to remember—along with our black and brown brothers and sisters—that this whiteness was only symbolic in the eyes of whoever wrote this text.  We can simply say that Jesus appeared to be glowing in the way that someone glows when they are confident of their purpose, when they are in the flow of something bigger and greater than themselves and when they seem to shine with a goodness that is unassailable by others.  We don’t need to make Jesus dazzling white or pure or slicked up with Coppertone to convey this.  Whiteness has been associated with purity for far too long and to the detriment of our understandings about race.  Please remember that though Jesus was transfigured on that mountain, he remained a brown skinned Jew.  His glowing clothes were more about the failure of others to fully express what they saw, than commentary on a Godly blessing that made his skin lighter.

But let us return to Peter.  Peter who now wants to freeze the moment.  Peter who still can’t believe that Jesus is going to go through with his plans to suffer and to die.   Richard Rohr writes, “The word “change” normally refers to new beginnings. But transformation more often happens not when something new begins but when something old falls apart. The pain of something old falling apart — disruption and chaos — invites the soul to listen at a deeper level. It invites and sometimes forces the soul to go to a new place because the old place is not working anymore. The mystics use many words to describe this chaos: fire, darkness, death, emptiness, abandonment, trial, the Evil One. Whatever it is, it does not feel good and it does not feel like God. We will do anything to keep the old thing from falling apart.”[1]

And so, Peter wants to freeze frame this shining Jesus, this Jesus who has Elijah and Moses standing next to him, this experience of God’s voice, from a cloud no less, affirming his friend, telling them to listen to this Beloved One.  And we remember that Moses and Elijah are more than dead—but here on the mountain, they are somehow alive and giving their vote of approval as if, as if, well—as if, George Washington himself were to come back and stand alongside our favorite presidential candidate, or as if Martin Luther King, Jr. were to appear alongside another favored civil rights leader.  We can’t blame Peter for wanting to build three dwellings up there on the mountain; who wouldn’t want to freeze-frame all that glory and goodness and bask in it forever?

However, Jesus knows he is going to Jerusalem, in the way some of us just know that it is time for a cool change.  Do you remember the song by the Little River Band?

If there’s one thing in my life that’s missing
It’s the time that I spend alone
Sailing on the cool and bright clear water

Lots of those friendly people
They’re showing me ways to go
But I never want to lose their inspiration

Time for a cool change
I know that it’s time for a cool change
Now that my life is so prearranged
I know that it’s time for a cool change[2]

 

And here’s the thing:  Peter is one of those friendly, well-meaning people trying to freeze the Jesus he knows from becoming the Jesus that he doesn’t know.  After the disciples witness this epiphany from God up there on the mountain, they fall down in awe—and FEAR.   Richard Rohr writes, “Transformation usually includes a disconcerting reorientation. Change can either help people to find a new meaning, or it can cause people to close down and turn bitter. The difference is determined by the quality of our inner life, or what we call “spirituality.” Change of itself just happens; spiritual transformation is an active process of letting go, living in the confusing dark space for a while, and allowing yourself to be spit up on a new and unexpected shore.[3]

In his book, Lament for a Son, Christian theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff comments on his life after his 25-year-old son’s sudden death in a mountain-climbing accident. It’s a classic description of a personal crisis:

“The world looks different now. … Something is over. In the deepest levels of my existence, something is finished, done. My life is divided into before and after.”[4]

Sisters and brothers, do you have a “before’ and an “after”?  Many of us do.  Have your friends, family, or associates tried unwittingly to give you an “after” that doesn’t fit you?  Have they tried to change the “after” to make it theirs and not yours?

If so, here is some good news: one of the things that we need to remember about personality and transformation is that it is not static, but fluid.  The “after” that Peter wanted was a safe Jesus, a Jesus that remained on the mountain flanked by celebrity prophets and a private audience of him, James, and John.  What he didn’t want was the Jesus and the mission that would send him down the mountain, into Jerusalem, into the public’s eye, into criticism, persecution, and into death.  And yet, we who know this story post-Easter, realize that even Jesus’ “after” is not God’s AFTER.  We might, like the bereaved father, believe that our “after” is frozen in time, incapable of changing.  We might think that our personalities are stubborn and resistant to change or transformation.  Yet, both science and faith proclaim something completely different.

In an NPR Invisibilia segment on the subject, scientists declare that our personalities can change over a lifetime.[5]  A criminal does not remain a criminal. Research by Brent Roberts, Joshua Jackson, Wiebke Bleidorn and others highlights the importance of social roles.  When we invest in a role that calls for kinds of behavior, such as a job that calls for being hard-working and responsible, then over time those behaviors tend to become integrated into our personality. [6] In fact, much of our personality is determined not by innate quality or deficit, but often by the stability or instability of circumstances around us.  That is why some people can act one way in one set of circumstances and yet another way in another set of circumstances.  Think of the leader of the mafia who can be cruel in one environment and a loving father in another set of circumstances. As one commentator observed, “Even though these  experiments were done almost 50 years ago, we’re still struggling with the notion that human personality and behavior isn’t a constant.[7]  In addition, we can change what we become and what we think by changing the frame of the stories we tell.  Our biology tells us something similar, red blood cells replace themselves every 120 days, cells are replaced regularly in our organs, atoms that make up our neurons turn over, and eventually trauma memories can fade.  As neuroscientist David Egelman explains, we are changing all the time.  There is only the illusion of continuity.  We might say there is only the illusion that we can freeze -frame any personality or human experience.[8]

So, where does that leave us today?  In our story, Jesus is not content to remain on the mountain; he and the disciples must descend despite Peter’s desire to preserve the shining Jesus he saw before his eyes and despite the disciples’ fear.  And you and I must descend too, appreciating the peaks, but often spending far more time in the valleys.  We can give our friends and family, as well as ourselves, the benefit and gift of understanding that we are all in the process of becoming, which often involves a kind of dying.  We are not fixed personalities with futures frozen in time but dynamic, beloveds of our Creator, who are daily re-made new by our choices, our chosen social roles, our actions, and sometimes even our inaction.  We do our loved ones and ourselves a disservice when we seek to fit them into forms and ideas that fit our needs and wishes and not their own.  For we may, like Jesus, have a Jerusalem to which we are called, a way of being and serving that takes us to places and circumstances that only we know, and that may baffle those who gaze from the sidelines.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Richard Rohr. “When things fall apart,” Daily Meditation for December 29, 2017, Center for Action and Contemplation website. cac.org. Retrieved May 23, 2019.

 

[2] Little River Band.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son (Eerdmans, 1987).

 

[5] See https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/06/30/484053435/personality-can-change-over-a-lifetime-and-usually-for-the-better

 

[6] Christopher Soto, “Personality Can Change Over A Lifetime, And Usually For The Better,” June 30, 2016 11:01 AM ET. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/06/30/484053435/personality-can-change-over-a-lifetime-and-usually-for-the-better

 

[7] Alix Spiegel, Invisibilia: Is Your Personality Fixed, Or Can You Change Who You Are?,  June 24, 20163:00 AM ET  https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/06/24/481859662/invisibilia-is-your-personality-fixed-or-can-you-change-who-you-are

 

[8] Ibid https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/06/24/481859662/invisibilia-is-your-personality-fixed-or-can-you-change-who-you-are