The following is a sermon delivered at Woodbrook Baptist Church in Baltimore on March 2, 2014. Woodbrook’s pastor, Dr. John Ballenger, is part of a dear group of clergy colleagues who have met annually for sermon planning and support for over ten years. This group, called Preacher Camp, has been one of the greatest gifts of my own vocational journey. Every year John and I swap pulpits, just to share a little bit of the love with our congregations.
Just a Little Light
Good morning Woodbrook Baptist Church. I’m so happy to find myself here with you this morning again, this year accompanied by two of the smarter people in our family, my kids Hannah and Sam, sharing in worship with you and celebrating—as I know John is at Calvary—the incredible gift we have found in sharing the journey of ministry together with our colleagues, our pastors, at Preacher Camp every year.
Woodbrook and Calvary, as you know, are pioneers in the pulpit sharing initiative of Preacher Camp—I think this might be our sixth year? As I walked into worship last Sunday the deacon leading worship with me was perusing the announcements in the bulletin and exclaimed excitedly, “Oh, man, I can’t wait to hear John Ballenger next week. You know, Pastor Amy, that sermon he preached about stewardship last year was so amazing. I still think about it all the time.”
No. Your enthusiastic welcome has inspired our Preacher Camp group to look a little harder at our calendars and see if we can’t get the other members of our group into regular pulpit swap situations to let all of our congregations hear the voices that heal and inspire us, and to say thank you—as much as we can—to all of you, for allowing us and our families the precious gift of this life giving community to walk with us in the challenging work of ministry. Thank you.
Well, here we find ourselves, on the final Sunday after the Epiphany, with a floodlight shined directly in our eyes. As you know, the season following the Epiphany takes us on a journey with Jesus where we join his disciples as they drop their nets, start to follow, and begin learning who Jesus was and what he meant to do.
They began pretty befuddled and have arrived here, in Matthew chapter 17, only slightly less befuddled. Throughout the gospel texts these past seven weeks we’ve watched Jesus turning up the light, little by little, working to help his disciples see clearly what it is he was there to do and the part they would be called to play in the ushering in of the Kingdom of God, as Jesus liked to call it.
Think of these weeks following Epiphany like the overhead light in your dining room. Some of you probably have one of those fancy switch things that you click on and, using the dial on the switch, you can slowly turn up the light fixture over the dining room table from softly dim Valentine’s Day Dinner-ish to bright, glaring Night Before the Science Project is Due levels.
You know what I mean, right?
Well, that’s what Jesus was up to. Little by little he has turned up the light these past weeks: calling the disciples, feeding the hungry, preaching against injustice, casting out demons, telling us we need to love our enemies…little bit by little bit he turned up the light, showing the people who followed him just how increasingly radical, subversive, and counter-cultural his message really was.
And it had caught on; it really had. Excitement built; his popularity grew; and by today’s gospel passage there was a certain element—some of them his closest disciples—who were beginning to feel distinctly uneasy at the suspicion that this gospel Jesus was preaching was heading them for trouble.
Light, a tiny sliver growing steadily until today, Transfiguration Sunday, when the lights are turned on bright—full, glaring illumination that made the disciples want to cover their eyes it was so strong.
Right after “the Jesus Tour,” on which Jesus healed and fed and taught people all over Galilee, chapter sixteen tells us that Jesus began a campaign to get his disciples ready for what was ahead. He said things that should have tipped them off that this following Jesus wasn’t all light and flowers, free food and healings for everyone. He used words like: threatening, beware, watch out, suffering, death, even: “if you want to become my follower, deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me…for those who want to save their life with lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
So it was with those cheery words ringing in their ears, Peter, James, and John went with Jesus on a little hike. Up the mountain they went, talking about all the things that had transpired, Peter super enthusiastic still, James and John wondering if this career risk they’d taken was really going to pay off as they’d hoped.
The text says that suddenly along the way, Jesus was transfigured before them. I’m not sure what that means exactly, except that it had something to do with light: dazzling, shining light, like the sun. It was like flipping the switch and turning the floodlights on. They didn’t know what was happening, especially when Moses and Elijah showed up and they heard the voice from heaven confirming what they’d hoped all along: this is my beloved Son, listen to him!
I wasn’t there, but I would bet they were thinking something like this: Yes! For once in their hardscrabble lives they’d made the right call, taken a chance that was going to pay off big time! Jesus was going to overthrow the Roman government; they were on their way!
And so, in response, Peter suggested what seemed only reasonable: let’s mark this place. Let’s build some monuments to all of this amazingness. Let’s celebrate that we’ve made it! Let’s hang on with all we’ve got to this shining, illuminating moment where we can see God so clearly and where the darkness of our lives is banished, once and for all!
Ah, we humans. We change so much but at the core we’re really the same. Even back then, on a mountain in Galilee, institutional religion—that amazing gift and terrible burden—was raising its hand, demanding attention.
Here’s how it goes. Individually and corporately we come to a moment in our lives where we’re seeking God. We’re searching for comfort, answers, hope, community. Somehow we wander into faith community and we very often meet God there. We find the solace we need, we’re grafted into relationships that heal us, we understand in new ways the interplay between God and the world.
And we want to hang on tight to those feelings of clarity and purpose, so tight that we build buildings and erect monuments and hold meetings and write bylaws to make sure we’ve captured just a little bit of God, that light that will shine forever and make everything okay.
So we know exactly how Peter, bless his heart, felt when he excitedly suggested a monument-building campaign.
But what Peter, James, and John didn’t realize that day up on the mountain, bathed in the light of God’s love, was that they had not, in fact, reached the pinnacle of their adventure with Jesus. They thought they’d made it; that all their struggling to follow and listen and understand had finally paid off.
But this bright and shiny miracle wasn’t the culmination of Jesus’ work, was it? This passage in the gospel of Matthew is just the halfway point in the story of Jesus’ ministry. Beginning with his baptism and through all the stories of encountering people and preaching the gospel message, we’re only halfway there.
The other half was just beginning, and it was going to be a half filled, not with light and celebration, feeding and healing, vindication and culmination. No, you know: it would be a half filled with darkness and suffering, humiliation and pain, abandonment and…death. Here, bathed in the light, we’re only halfway between baptism and the cross. There’s still a ways to go, and the way ahead is a hard, treacherous way for sure.
Up on that mountain, shining and certain, they couldn’t see for all the light; they’d forgotten Jesus’ words about taking up a cross.
And in the comfort and light of all of this, we do, too.
But Jesus hadn’t. Jesus was a leader who held out a vision and kept pushing his people toward it, no matter the pain. Didn’t the disciples know that by now?
So, as the light began to fade, Jesus nipped Peter’s ideas in the bud, as well intentioned as they were. There’s more to go on this journey, the vision of the Kingdom of God come to earth, a place where our lives and our relationships with each other are consistently marked by grace and hope and forgiveness, and most of all, love. Let’s go.
And go they did, down the mountain in the fading light, toward a vision of the world not realized by staying there. Jesus invited them back down the mountain at dusk, along the dimly-lit path, to face the future as the inky black of darkness fell all around them. There was hardly enough light to find their next steps, but God’s vision for the world was pulling them further, deeper, longer into a risky future.
As many of you know, I grew up in Hawaii on the island of Oahu. Hawaii is an amazing place to visit, and it’s an even more amazing place to grow up. My childhood was filled with experiences I’ve come to learn that many people don’t have.
For example, it is common in Hawaii for folks to have saltwater aquariums. It makes sense, really, since they live on a small piece of land completely surrounded by…salt water. It’s easy to bring a little taste of the teeming and beautiful sea life that surrounds you into the living room or office or whatever. And usually, to populate your saltwater tank, you don’t go to the store, you go night fishing.
Here’s how it works. When night falls you pack up your reef shoes, bathing suit, buckets, fishing nets [fishnets], and flashlights and head to the north side of the island to a beach with a reef not too far from the shore, at the lowest point in low tide. On that side of the island there are no big cities; the ambient light from homes and population centers is very low, so the darkness is black, so black you can see the stars with a clarity you’d never achieve standing on the balcony of your highrise in downtown Honolulu.
Those are the best conditions for night fishing because as the tide recedes and the reef comes to the surface, little pools are created in the rock formations, and in the darkness the most interesting and beautiful sea creatures come to the surface. Brightly colored fish and coral, crabs and jellyfish, little eels and prickly sea anemones are all there in their natural fish tanks. And with a good net and a deft hand you can catch some of them, put them in your bucket, and take them home to your living room.
You can’t be successful at night fishing, though, without the most important tool for night fishing: your waterproof flashlight. In the darkness of the nighttime, with no environmental light, you can’t see anything. Really. You can’t see where the rock formations protrude; you can’t see where the tide pools have formed; you can’t see where the reef ends and the ocean begins; you can’t see the animals you’re after.
With a good flashlight, though, there’s enough light to fish by. Just enough light to recognize where the tidal pools begin; just enough light to see that darting school of angelfish; just enough light to keep your fingers away from a snapping crab claw; just enough light to monitor the water level in your bucket; just enough light to be seen by your friends down the reef; just enough light to find your next step.
You can’t see the vast expanse of ocean surrounding you, deep and blue and mysterious and dangerous. You only have just a little bit of light. But it’s enough. Just a little light is enough to find a few new sea creatures to welcome to the living room aquarium, just a little light, enough for the task at hand.
We’ve been following the disciples around these weeks after the Epiphany, our hearts rising with all the hope and possibility of this kingdom Jesus is describing. We hear in his words incredible promise for healing, hope, reconciliation, justice, peace. There have been moments on this journey of faith, in fact, when the light and promise of his message have stunned us with their brilliance, and when we’ve wished (maybe even tried with all our might) to stay right here, bathed in light, surrounded in goodness and grace.
But Lent begins this week. And as we look out over the week ahead, down the mountain, we can sense the darkness falling around us. We’re tempted to try to stay right here and contain the light, to build a monument to its promise.
But the way of Jesus is not a way of comfort and illumination most of the time. Gospel is subversive and countercultural; it calls us to turn the system of our world upside down, to speak defiantly to abusive power, to seek justice even when it hurts, to tell the truth in a world of lies, to forgive and forgive and forgive again. It calls us away from our dreams of institutions and monuments and stability and certainty into the inky black darkness of a world in pain.
And so today Jesus invites us to turn and head back down the mountain, the brilliance of all that light still burning our eyes. We know it’s true, that we can’t stay up there, because the monuments God wants from us are…our lives.
All the messy uncertainty and doubt, the pain that spurs us toward change, the honest engagement that leads to healing and hope, the courage to take one more step toward God’s grandest dreams for our lives and for our world. All of that asks us to take a step. Just one step in a direction we can’t see toward an end we can’t even imagine.
How can we do it? Where should we walk? The darkness seems all-consuming and filled with fear.
But if we have the courage to take one step into the darkness ahead we will see: there it is! In the darkness of our fear and uncertainty…light. Just a little light. Not flood lights illumining the whole journey, but enough light to call us forward. It’s transfiguration Sunday and, like he did for his first disciples, Jesus invites us down the mountain, into the darkness ahead. He has done for us what Emily Dickenson describes:Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Just a little light.
Just enough for that one, next step.
Thanks be to God. Amen.