Sunday, February 14, 2021
Lately, we’ve gotten a kick out of our daughter Grace, because when it’s her turn to pick an after-school TV show to watch, she hasn’t asked for a cartoon, but to watch one of Bob Ross’s “The Joy of Painting” episodes on public television. For those of you who don’t know who Bob Ross is, google him – apparently, PBS starting airing more episodes after the pandemic hit, and art supplies have been in greater demand. He makes painting look so easy with his “happy little trees” and clouds! Both of my kids are actually really into drawing, painting, and coloring, and of course as their mom I think they’re quite good! I, on the other hand, am not good at art, at all. And when I think about why I don’t get into the visual arts, I’d like to blame Bob Ross, as sweet of a man as he is, because painting is much harder than he makes it look. My memories as a child trying to paint or draw were of continual frustration. The picture in my head would never turn out at all like I wanted it to on the page. With a few brush strokes, I had a mess, not a beautiful forest or mountain scene.
Now, I know we have a lot of artists in the congregation. So I don’t know if any of you can identify with my dilemma, if not with painting then with another situation where in your head, you expect something to go one way or look a certain way, but the actual experience is disappointing because it’s not anything at all like you’ve imagined: looking at a house or a car online and then getting to the open house or test drive and realizing this isn’t your dream car or house at all; a job interview that doesn’t pan out, a vacation to a place you’ve always wanted to go that is underwhelming...you get the idea. It’s hard when the ideal doesn’t match reality.
If you read the end of Mark chapter 8 starting with verse 27 and then this part of the gospel in chapter 9, you’ll realize that this is what is happening to Peter on the journey up and down the mountain with Jesus. Peter’s reality is not meeting his expectations of who Jesus is and what the Messiah should be like. Right after Peter’s “aha moment” that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus tells the disciples that he will “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’s reaction is basically, “Wait, what? No…” and Jesus rebukes him, saying “Get behind me, Satan!” Six days pass, Mark tells us. Peter’s had some time to try to wrap his mind around the Messiah suffering and being killed as a part of God’s plan for the world’s redemption. He’s sticking with Jesus after being that disappointed. He’s trying to reconcile the ideal in his head with reality. He goes up the mountain with Jesus, James, and John, and there Jesus is transfigured. Moses and Elijah are there – everything is dazzling white, then all of a sudden the moment is over. “Let’s stay here, maybe forever?” Peter is thinking, but Jesus says it’s time to go back down the mountain and not to say anything until he has risen from the dead. Peter has to be confused at this point. I’m always slightly confused by this transfiguration moment. But he’s also had a glimpse of God’s divine glory – he’s had a heavenly moment with Jesus on that mountain. For even a few seconds, Peter’s dreams and reality have become one, however fleeting. And this transfiguration moment seems to be enough for him and the rest of the disciples to go back down the mountain with Jesus to follow him to the cross and to look forward to the empty tomb – to resurrection.
Today, we are wrapping up our discipleship series and focusing on advocacy. It’s a difficult topic because advocacy very quickly becomes partisan in the hyper-divisive times we are living in. The specific baptismal promise we make is “to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.” In addition to becoming offensive or divisive, working for justice and peace often becomes overwhelming. We know how to donate food or clothing to people in need, or contribute money to charitable organizations we care about…but when it comes to not just giving a man a fish but teaching him how to fish – addressing big picture issues like homelessness, poverty, racism, mental illness, and so on seems beyond what we can do. It is very tempting to avoid the subject altogether and not try at all.
For me, justice work often feels like trying to be a professional painter, picking up the brush, and ending up with a black blob rather than a work of art. Most of us have an image in our head of how the world ought to look like, the world as it should be. The end of the book of Revelation comes to mind: mourning, suffering, and pain are no more. No one is thirsty or hungry, people are free from anxiety and fear, God wipes every tear from our eyes, everyone gets along. When we talk of ideals like peace and harmony, we have glimpses of what that could look like. We have dreams of what post-pandemic times could look like as well. Then, like it does for Peter in the gospel of Mark, reality hits. We give a few bucks to the homeless man on the corner and see him later with a bottle in his hand. Our favorite politician gets elected and policy change doesn’t come like we’d hoped. The stock market falls, someone in our family gets sick. We know well that life is never free of disappointments, and it is really discouraging when it seems like the world is getting worse, not better. And yet, like Peter, we also have had glimpses of eternity, glimpses of the feast yet to come that we long for so desperately these days that keep us striving for God’s justice and peace on earth.
In my previous congregation, for our one-hundredth anniversary, we raised money which we tithed to local and global ministries outside of our church. Our biggest effort was through ELCA World Hunger to sponsor a well-digging project so a village would have clean drinking water. We learned that access to clean water not only improved health but also allowed more children to go to school and women to get jobs with higher wages because women and children were walking miles one way to carry usable water to their homes. We made an impact. There are still too many villages that don’t have access to clean water, education or meaningful work. It’s pretty easy to come up with a long list of ways the world is not as it should be, but we still strive. We strive like Peter to follow even when Jesus calls us to go down the mountain and back into the mess of people’s real lives. We strive to follow even when Jesus promises the road we walk on will include suffering for our faith, because Jesus also promises that there is resurrection at the end of the road. The transfiguration is a glimpse of God’s glory and the future eternal hope we all have that one day God will make all things new, as it should be. But like Peter, Jesus tells us we can’t just stay forever on the mountaintop. Living a faithful life includes going back down to journey with Jesus in the messiness of life, to know that God in Christ suffers with those who are suffering and that God wants more for all people than suffering.
What are those glimpses of God’s justice and peace being realized that keep you going? What are those glimpses of God’s beauty, God’s hope, God’s life abundant that sustain you when the journey is wearing? After the transfiguration moment, the disciples hear a voice saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” And when they look around, all they see is Jesus. Jesus is standing at the center – Jesus sticks by them whether they are on the mountaintop or in the valley. As we strive to be Jesus’ modern-day disciples – to practice Christian fellowship, worship, evangelism, service, and advocacy, that we remember all along the journey of faith Jesus stands with us in the center. Amen.