A sermon NOT given this morning at Second Church in Newton UCC, at a service that would have been “Holy Humor,” a celebration of God’s gift of laughter before the season of Lent.
“A day without laughter is a day wasted.” –Charlie Chaplin
“After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. 3 His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. 4 And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.5 Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 6 (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.)7 Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” 8 Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus. 9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.” –Mark 9: 2-9
I’ve been a little obsessed with signs lately, and mainly what I’ve noticed is that there are a lot of signs that don’t actually say what they mean. A lot of passive aggressive signage out there. For example, down at Boston Common’s parking garage, there are two signs. One sign says, “Elevators now accessible 24 hours a day.” And then there’s another sign that says, “No public restrooms.” But as anyone who has ridden them knows, there is occasionally a certain smell in those elevators…and it makes you realize: If you have an elevator that is open 24 hours a day…then you also have a public restroom. The sign they really wanted to put up was: Please don’t urinate in our elevator! Or if you’ve ever been walking your dog and you see a sign by someone’s mail box that says, “Dog urine rusts metal.” Your first impulse when you see this sign is, “Yeah, so?” What they really mean to say is, “Please don’t let your dog relieve itself on my mail box.” And it’s odd that they don’t come right out and say that, because if you should be able to be demanding with your neighbors about anything it’s what happens on your own property, right? But for some reason, we have a lot of signs that are kind of ambiguous. We expect polite society to understand what we mean, but we don’t come right out and say it. Even stop signs, the one sign that gives a very specific, very direct message, “STOP!” We’ve all been at intersections where we see someone blow right through the sign, and it’s really like a little conversation is happening between sign and car, “STOP!” “NOOOOOOOO!” And we very correctly get furious with people who behave like that in traffic, but maybe we should give them the benefit of a doubt sometimes, maybe they aren’t always aware of the gravity of the situation. Because even a Stop sign is not really saying what it means. It just has the word “Stop” on it, but what that sign really means is, “Other cars and people might be trying to occupy this space right now, and you need to take a deep breath and look around before you try to cross THIS line or you might kill someone, you idiot.” But that’s too many words to fit into an octagon, so they just say, “Stop.”
So I’ve been rather obsessed with signs lately. Because signs don’t always say what they really mean. And also, sometimes there are signs in plain sight, their intentions perfectly clear, it is in our best interest to heed their warning…and we fail to see them entirely. But the most infuriating thing of all is when we see a sign, we take note of it, we know it’s important….and we completely miss its meaning. Example: For a Christmas present this year, i had asked my family for money so I could purchase new snow boots. And they very generously gave me such a gift, but when I went to order the L.L. Bean boots I really wanted, I found out they were sold out for the season. So i thought, “It hasn’t snowed yet this year anyway, I’ll wait until next year and get the boots I really want.” And I thought I’d spend the money on gloves instead. But when I went down to the store, they said they were all sold out of gloves for the season. So rather than try another store, I thought, “Well, this winter has been pretty mild, I’ll wait until next year to get some gloves.” Flash forward just a few weeks, to the day after the Super Bowl, snow falling everywhere, and me waiting 90 minutes for a bus to come pick me up and take me home…wearing nothing but my sneakers on my feet, no gloves on my hands. Just a really pathetic 32-year-old man standing and shivering, losing feeling in my toes and fingers. I can only image in what well-equipped onlookers must have thought of me that day, “Does he think that just because he has the same skin color as the snow that it isn’t out to get him?” And that was Groundhog Day, by the way. There was still six weeks of winter ahead, and rather than preparing for the entire winter season…I had decided I would wait until next year. Sometimes the signs for what we need to do…the signs describing reality…are right in front of us…and they are very clear…and we fail to understand them properly.
Jesus went up a tall mountain with his closest disciples, and at the top of the mountain, he turned shimmering white, and images of the great Jewish prophets Moses and Elijah appeared before them. And Jesus talked with them. Peter is so overwhelmed by what he’s seeing, and the text says, “He did not know what to say, for they were terrified,” but even though Peter doesn’t know what to say, e says it anyway, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us build you three dwellings, one for Moses, one for Elijah, and one for you.” And God’s own voice could be heard saying, “This is my son, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.” And at the end of all this, Jesus orders them to tell no one about this until after the Son of Man is risen from the dead.
Now as far as I can tell, there are at least 3 things here that require some investigating. The first being…how did they know this was Moses and Elijah? This was Israel 2,000 years ago…and the long-dead heroes that are appearing before them were far older than that. There were no pictures of these guys…they did not have Pinterest or Instagram…no one had even attempted eye-witness sketches of the guys. Are we meant to think that they were acting out their most notable achievements? Maybe they knew it was Moses because he’s standing there with 2 stone tablets in his arms? Maybe Elijah is…I don’t know…slaying a bunch of enemy prophets or something?
But ok, somehow they know this is Moses and Elijah, but then the next part is interesting…they’re talking to one another. Jesus is talking to the other two…but there’s no mention of what they were talking about. Wouldn’t that be of some interest? If you were Peter telling this story later on, no one would let you get away with, “And the three of them were talking to one another. I didn’t pay attention to what they were saying, it didn’t seem important. Probably just a lot of industry talk, if you know what I mean? I mean, these prophets..Oy.” No one is letting him get away with that! What’s the point of mentioning that they talked to one another without mentioning what they were talking about?
And then Peter…man, when you add it all up, Peter really has quite a lot of things happen in his life…Peter is so terrified and so in awe of what he’s seeing. Does he just have the common sense to shut up, to PAY ATTENTION to what Jesus is talking about with the dead prophets, and take it all in? NO! He insists on saying something, saying ANYTHING, no matter how stupid, just to break up the…awkwardness, I guess? “Teacher, this is good stuff. Let’s build houses! We’ll build you a house right here on the mountain! Not just one house, but THREE! One for you, and one for each of the….ghosts?”
The more you think about it, the less this seems like a Biblically important event—a clear sign from God about Jesus’ divine identity—and it seems more like a story about a party you went to in college. Jesus is shining white, there are two other glowing dead guys, Peter rambling about building houses—despite the total lack of available construction materials—the other disciples just scared out of their minds, voices speaking down from the clouds…it’s like a rave gone badly. And at the end of all of it, Jesus, having just been transfigured from ordinary Rabbi to Son of God cosmic power broker, Jesus comes to Peter and the other disciples and says, “Tell no one about this until after I’m dead.” Don’t tell me that’s not like an epic college party. Even Jesus doesn’t want this story out there until after he’s gone.
We are a headline kind of people. We want to know what happened, we want to know what was said, we want facts and figures and unbiased news, and we want all these things because they help us gauge our expectations for reality. We like signs—even passive aggressive ones—because we want the world to be discernible, we need to be able to be confident in our decisions and our choices, and if we are going to break the law or disregard society’s norms, we at least want to know how badly we’ll be fined. We have the easiest time in life when we have, at the very least, the illusion of control and the assurance of expected outcomes. You know what I’m going to say next? Can I ruin the punch line for you?
In the course of human history, God has not given us a lot of evidence—or any, really—that God cares about our expectations. Traditionally, it is much more likely that God defies and confounds our expectations. You may not find that particular joke very funny. Have you ever seen someone slip on a banana peel? It’s hilarious for the people watching, but for the person doing the slipping, it looks pretty painful. Knowing the punch line of the universe can be a funny thing…unless the joke is on you. Unless it’s YOUR expectations that are being confounded…unless it’s your life getting turned upside down…unless it’s you falling on the ground.
Across New England this morning, faith communities have called off worship and closed their doors because of a blizzard that is raging across our land. Is this because we were unprepared for worship? Is it because we don’t love getting together to worship our God? Is it because we are unfaithful or lazy or unable to battle extreme weather in order to commune together? No. It’s because every once in awhile, there’s a crazy blizzard in the middle of the snowiest season in the recorded history of New England, and the worst of the wind and snow is predicted to fall right at the exact moment of our regular morning worship. And the only difference between this being funny and this being tragic is whether or not someone gets hurt (or worse) on their way into church on Sunday morning. The tragic headline would be, “Faithful Church Member Dies In Sunday Morning Blizzard.” The joke is, “400 Hundred Year History of Faithful Sunday Morning Worship Rewarded With Epic Blizzard and Historic Snow Fall. God has refused to comment.”
Sometimes when we only focus on specifically what is being said or what is happening…we miss the point entirely. God says to listen to what Jesus has to say, and his first sentence after this event is, “Don’t say anything to anyone.” God’s Truth can be revealed to us, splendor can happen right in front of our eyes, we can commune with spirits from the past, and the Glory of God’s Heaven can be touched and lived into right here on earth. It’s possible to live in the moment and experience the divine humor in the great cosmic joke, when we find that despite our best laid plans and our most precious expectations…everything in the world can go wrong and somehow God is still with us, and Heaven is even more present to us. But like any great joke…we can’t talk about it too much, or try to pick it apart or dissect it. Comedy doesn’t work that way, and neither does God. Whenever we think we’ve got God figured out, and we try to put God in a box, sooner or later we open up that box and discover it was just ourselves in there the whole time. Life as God has created it is full of grace and splenrod, and though it’s natural to be hurt when our own expectations fail us, we can see it as an invitation to laugh along with the mysterious and absurd wonder of God. And sometimes, like any good joke, talking about it just ruins the punch line.