Some years ago, my family took a vacation to colonial Williamsburg, and we had dinner at one of ye olde taverns. In the middle of the meal, a patriotic magician approached the table and commenced a series of magic tricks using an orange. He was no more than two feet from me, and yet I was stupefied by the ways the orange would disappear and reappear under a coffee mug or even in my own pocket. I know how magic works, how the able magician distracts the audience from the real action, thus allowing sleight of hand. Even with that knowledge, I was an easy mark. The magician enthralled me with his distractions. He was able to change what I thought I saw.
This is what the Pharisees are up to at the beginning of today’s Gospel passage. Jesus has just finished an extended soliloquy on what Paul Borgman calls “kingdom joy,”[i] in which Jesus proclaims that there are no limits to the freedom from bondage God conveys, that God’s kingdom is like yeast hidden in bread, like a tiny mustard seed that grows to overtake the whole garden, that people will stream from east and west, from north and south, to encounter God’s grace.
Jesus’ words are granting hope to the hopeless. They are shining light in lives that have been marked by shadow. And then the Pharisees show up with their sleight of hand. They sidle up to Jesus and warn him, as if they are concerned for his safety, to quiet his message and flee King Herod, who wants to kill Jesus. We mustn’t mistake what’s going on here. With a magician’s ability to distract, the Pharisees are really saying to Jesus—and to the people gathered around him in hope—“Don’t look there! Don’t pay attention to words of grace and light. Look this way instead, because danger lurks around the corner. Shadows encroach. Be afraid, and run away!”
With waving hands and histrionic voices, the Pharisees seek to enthrall with their distraction. They want to cloud the people’s vision of the world Jesus promises with a smokescreen of darkness, anxiety, and fear.
The people must have become furtive. I can imagine the flight response welling up in them, feet fidgeting, heart rates increasing, eyes tracking the Pharisees’ waving hands. But Jesus’ eyes do not move, and his message never wavers. “Tell King Herod,” Jesus says, “That I will do tomorrow exactly what I am doing today.” Words of hope will not be silenced. Light will continue to deny the power of darkness. Love will not flee. Does that give you chills? It does me.
Jesus then does, however, add a sobering note about what awaits him because his message will not waver. He will go to Jerusalem, he alludes, and there he will die.
You see, to the things of this world that feed on darkness, anxiety, and fear, love is the ultimate threat. This is as profoundly true as it is simple. To the things of this world that feed on darkness, anxiety, and fear, love is the ultimate threat. Such things are, throughout Luke’s Gospel, symbolized by Jerusalem. And there Jesus will go, never quieting his voice as he marches into the maw of danger. Jesus will not run from Herod, as the Pharisees mockingly warn, but will run toward him, revealing in Jesus’ very person the alternative to Herod and the Pharisees and Caesar himself: love instead of fear; light instead of darkness.
Beginning today and repeatedly throughout Lent, as Jesus makes his way charlatans and magicians will attempt to obfuscate and trick him into abandoning grace in favor of power, even as he hangs on the cross. They’ll beg the question of him: “As the noose tightens, will you persist with these words of grace? Will you refuse to spew vitriol, to raise a hand in your own defense, to give in to the darkness around you?”
It is the Lenten question. It is a variation on the question that was asked repeatedly last week, when Satan himself tempted Jesus. And, for those of us here, the Body of Christ, it is a question asked of us. Here it is, in its most distilled form: “Are we, the disciples of Jesus, willing to deny darkness and die for love?” Are we willing to die for love?
Thank God, we know Jesus’ answer. What is ours? The death can take innumerable and daily forms, just as does the world’s darkness. In our world, social interactions, the economy, politics, indeed, religion all oftentimes seem to cast more darkness than light. It is so easy to reside in the shadows, far easier than to push it back with light. When darkness rolls over us, will we shine? Will we persist always with words of grace? Will we be willing to risk the death of relationships, our strongly-held opinions and prejudices, even our comfort and material well-being in favor of love?
At paragraphs like that, we feel the flight response well up. Our feet fidget. Our heart rates rise. Our eyes become furtive. But Jesus does not move. He will do the same tomorrow that he does today. He will march straight toward Herod—even Herod!—in love, and when they kill him, even the darkness of the grave will not smother his light. Does that give you chills? Oh, it must.
And he calls us to gather under his wing.
A couple of weeks ago, Jill and I binged watched the remarkable first season of HBO’s series “True Detective.” It’s a dark show, and the heroes, Rust and Marty, played expertly by Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, struggle continually against the darkness without and the darkness within. They are no Pollyannas. “True Detective” is a hard show to watch, because throughout—not unlike Jesus’ Lenten march toward Jerusalem—it bears an impending sense of doom. At its very end, after the killer is vanquished and the heroes have barely survived, the two detectives have a final conversation outside the hospital. Rust, who has just, after revealing his own willingness to die for love, lingered for days in the twilight between life and death, recounts his childhood in Alaska, when he would gaze for hours at the stars in the nighttime sky, pinpricks of light piercing the darkness. “There’s just one story,” Rust says, “The oldest story…light versus dark.”
Marty responds, “It appears to me that the dark has a lot more territory.”
But Rust, who until now has been the more despairing of the two, pushes back. “You’re looking at it wrong,” he says, “Once there was only dark. If you ask me, the light is winning.”
It is, indeed, the only story. It is the Lenten story, as we move inexorably toward the Passion. Darkness, and the incessant voices that speak its language—that come at us like the Pharisees, with confusion and threat and fear and anxiety—seem to blanket the world like a burial shroud. But there is a light that will not be smothered. Even today, it shines. It speaks words of grace. It gathers under its wing. It marches on Jerusalem. In our world. In my heart. In yours.
Once there was only dark. If you ask me, the light is winning.
[i] Borgman, Paul. The Way According to Luke: Hearing the Whole Story of Luke-Acts, pp. 205-208.
My brother-in-law hosts an annual squirrel hunt at his family’s ancestral deer camp outside McGehee, Arkansas (which also happens to be the town in which my father was raised). I have attended this hunt several times, though I have yet to shoot at a squirrel. I cannot imagine eating such a tree-dwelling rodent, Arkansan though I am, and I won’t hunt what I won’t eat. The annual gathering isn’t really about hunting at any rate. It’s mostly about playing poker, telling tall tales, and staying up later than the moon.
One year, after considerable evening revelry, my brother-in-law’s brother-in-law on the other side, Kenneth , saw something move at the corner of the campsite. Like lightening, Kenneth bolted to the edge of the clearing and grabbed at something in the brush. When Kenneth stood up and turned around, he was holding by the tail in his outstretched arm an armadillo. Kenneth grinned like the Cheshire cat, and we all laughed. But slowly, Kenneth’s smile faded. His triumphal stance became awkward. His arm got tired. And I could see the question flash across his face: “What do you do next, once you’ve caught a wild animal by the tail?”
This is, I believe, a question similar to the one Simon Peter asks himself upon the Mount of Transfiguration today. And he answers poorly.
Today, Peter, James, and John see Jesus revealed in all his glory. They witness his transcendent power. They encounter him alongside Moses and Elijah. And Peter wants to grab Jesus and hold him. He sputters a plan to build booths in which to house the Lawgiver, the Prophet, and the Messiah. But Peter’s smile quickly fades when God above rebukes him and tells him to be quiet.
This is an accurate interpretation of the Transfiguration story. Indeed, it’s one I’ve preached in various ways, countless times. I’m tired of it. I’m tired, generally, of the depiction of the disciples as faltering, bumbling rubes. Sometimes, I fear, we accentuate their foibles in order to make ourselves look more enlightened, competent, or faithful by comparison, as if we’d have fared better than Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration. I mean, after all, what would you do—what would any of us know to do—if you caught the Son of God by the tail?
As we read the Transfiguration story on this last Sunday of Epiphany, I’m more interested in the fact that Peter, James, and John are on that mountain in the first place. Why have these three been granted the privilege of seeing the transfigured Jesus?
In Luke’s telling, Peter, James, and John are the first three disciples, the very first people, in the words of the Gospel, to “leave everything and follow Jesus.”[i] And of the disciples, it is Peter who, a week and a day prior to the Transfiguration vocally declares that Jesus is “the Christ, the Messiah of God.”[ii] Yes, along the way they stumble—who doesn’t when encountering something wholly unexpected and unprecedented in life?—but when the time comes for Jesus to remove the veil, to commune with God and with the pivotal figures in salvation history whose work Jesus is to complete, Jesus chooses the three who have been with him since the beginning—who have followed and struggled and questioned and wondered—to walk up the mountain and bear witness.
In the middle of today’s passage we read the sentence that, for me, makes all the difference: “Now Peter, James, and John were weighed down with sleep, but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory.”
Sleep—in scripture, in myth, in story—is more often metaphorical than literal, and here it is surely so. We deprive this story of its potency if we assume that the hike up the hill has led the disciples to need a nap. The drowse that weighs upon Peter, James, and John is their unavoidable human tendency to forget, redefine, and explain away the wonder of what they are encountering in Jesus as they follow him across the Galilean countryside: The miracle of one day becomes the curious coincidence the next. The earth-shattering vision of God’s kingdom gets domesticated in warm and fuzzy, “feel good” religion. Self-giving participation in God’s purposes devolves into a jockeying for preference or esteem. Sleep is the lulling of Gospel hope, by fear, fatigue, or comfort, into something less. Sleep leads us to believe the Gospel is just a dream.
It’s no surprise that sleep weighs on us, since it weighed on the three closest to Jesus himself. The surprise is, rather, that the sedative fails to overpower Peter, James, and John. Today, they stay awake, and because their eyes are open, they see Jesus’ glory. They stay awake.
This is the final Sunday in Epiphany. This is Holy Scripture’s last salvo to open our eyes, to spur our wakefulness, to drop the veil and reveal to us the utter wonder of grace and glory of God.
How do Peter, James, and John do it? How is it that they stay awake when the world’s lullaby is so intoxicating? The answer is in the radical commitment of their response to Jesus’ call. Peter James, and John, Luke tells us, leave everything to follow Jesus. Or, as another faith tradition puts it, the incarnation of God can only be seen in this world by those who adore God, who seek to enter into him, who may, admittedly, stumble, but who stumble while attempting to be devoted to God in love.[iii] The disciples see God, because their eyes are open. They expect to see.
The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning understands as much in her poem “Aurora Leigh.” She alludes to a different epiphany, not the Transfiguration but the burning bush of Moses, but her insight is the same:
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.
After today, Jesus and the disciples travel toward Jerusalem. Things become more difficult. Challenges mount. Risks increase. Danger crescendos. All the time, Peter and the others have the option of closing their eyes, of falling asleep to the truth, of drifting back into their Galilean world and forgetting the glory they have seen.
Next, we enter Lent and leave Epiphany behind. We will impose ashes and remind ourselves of our fleeting mortal lives. This is important to do, but we will run the risk of mistaking ourselves as only dust, and this world as devoid of the incarnation of God. Even our Lenten observances, whatever they are, must be pinches that quicken our attention, that jolt us awake, that feed our adoration of the God whose glory is all around us. We mustn’t allow ourselves to be lulled from the wakened wonder of Epiphany into a drowsy Lenten sleep, lest our closed eyes miss a glimpse through the porous veil.
On Wednesday morning, I had just finished typing the opening illustration of today’s sermon, about the squirrel camp and Kenneth and the armadillo. It’s a story I’ve never publicly told before, ever. In fact, I’ve never made mention of any armadillo in any sermon. The genre, you might say, is new to my repertoire.
Within thirty minutes of writing that illustration, my secretary Nelda walked in to my office and handed me a box that had just arrived in the mail. The box was from Bob Capra, the church organist at my first parish in Memphis. I’ve not seen Bob in nearly a decade. I’ve not spoken to him in almost as long. But as soon as I saw the address on the box, I got chills. “Nelda,” I said, “I know what’s in that box. I’m going to read you the story I’ve just typed, and then I’m going to open that box, and you are going to be amazed.
I read the story to Nelda out loud. I opened the sealed box. And Nelda almost fainted. You see, long ago Bob Capra and I had a running joke about the northern migration of armadillos being a sign of the Apocalypse. If one of us found an armadillo trinket on our travels, we’d bring it home to the other one as a gag gift. I’d had no contact of any kind with Bob in years—not so much as a postcard—and when I opened that box in had within it, on that singular morning of all mornings, a stuffed armadillo.
Wonders small and large. Hints of grace and glory. The world’s crammed with heaven and afire with God, for those who see, who stay awake.
[i] Luke 5:11
[ii] Luke 9:20
[iii] This is Krishna’s explanation to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, as related in Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, 203-204.
The docent spoke in soft tones, as if attending a sacred site. With deliberateness and care, she instructed me how to participate in the simulation. “Sit in the middle seat,” she said, “Put on the headphones and place your palms down on the counter. It takes ninety seconds, but it’s o.k. if you don’t last that long.”
I was visiting the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, and the platform on which I sat is part of the center’s exhibit, “Rolls Down Like Waters: The American Civil Rights Movement.” The simulation recreates the 1960 Greensboro, North Carolina, Woolworth lunch counter sit-in, in which four black college students refused to move from a whites-only lunch counter unless and until they were served a cup of coffee.
“Ninety seconds?!?” I thought to myself, “I can endure anything for ninety seconds.” I did as I was instructed, closed my eyes, and waited for the simulation to begin. Immediately, the headphones were filled with the sounds of commotion, as if coming from behind me, and then there was heavy, angry breathing in my ear. A voice seethed racial slurs at me and threatened personal violence if I didn’t move. Then the chair jolted and shook. I heard someone next to me dragged from his seat, followed by cries of pain. Tears welled in my eyes, and—unexpectedly—I felt my heart race. “I’m having a flight response,” I thought in surprise, “I’m afraid.” I was relieved when ninety seconds expired, and I could walk back into the personal safety of my white majority world.
The sit-in movement spread of course, to Richmond, Nashville, and other cities. Sit-ins became an important motivator in the broader civil rights movement, catching the attention of President Eisenhower and the national media, spreading to other venues such as swimming pools and libraries in both southern and northern cities, and eventually including up to 70,000 protestors. In the case of the Greensboro Woolworth, the store finally ended its segregationist policy five months later, once it had lost $200,000 in sales revenue from the disruption. Through the courage of four young North Carolinians, who lasted infinitely longer than ninety seconds,the world began to change.
As we observe Black History Month, we do well to remember not only those iconic figures such as A. Philip Randolph and Martin Luther King, Jr., but also four men—David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, and Joseph McNeil—at a Woolworth lunch counter and the thousands who followed their lead, who served as the vanguard of the vision of God’s kingdom in this land, in which the blessed diversity of God’s people live together in peace and love.