Sermons

The Journey of Repentance (Living as Resurrection People)

 
Living as Resurrection People: The Journey of Repentance
Acts 3:12-19, Psalm 4, 1 John 3:1-7
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
Eastertide
April 22, 2012
Kyndall Renfro
 

At the beginning of Lent, I told you I was on a pilgrimage to rediscover the practice of confession because I was afraid it had gone missing. I confessed to you, there was a lack of confession in my life, and I am afraid there is a lack of confession in the church. That sermon was the beginning of a Lenten pilgrimage and now, here we are, on the other side of the Cross, celebrating the glories of Eastertide and an empty tomb, and our lectionary texts today are filled with talk of repentance.

While I was geared up and ready to talk about confessing and repenting during Lent, it seems a bit too sad for Eastertide, don’t you think? In the Acts chapter 3 passage, Peter’s sermon returns us to the pain and shame of the cross before we are ready. “It’s only been two weeks since Easter,” I want to protest, and Peter takes us right back to Good Friday, reminding us it was our voices shouting, “Crucify him.” Peters says this to the crowd, “You handed him over to be killed. You disowned him before Pilate. You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you instead. You killed the author of life.”

Whew. I don’t know about you, but this is not the memory I want to go to on the third Sunday of Eastertide. It’s a harsh opener: “You killed the author of life.” This is not, by the way, how they teach you to start a sermon in seminary, but it is surprisingly effective for Peter, who sees five thousand people come to Christ. Of course, the point of Peter’s sermon is not the judgment, but the repentance of the people. He concludes by saying, “God raised him from the dead . . . and now, brothers and sisters, I know that you acted in ignorance. So repent and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that time of refreshing may come from the Lord.” 1 John 3 echoes, “But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins,” as if to say, the resurrection would be in vain if it didn’t in turn raise people up out of their sins and into a new way of life. Peter isn’t interested in whether the people feel bad for what happened at the crucifixion. What Peter wants is to see Easter brought to completion in their very hearts. His sermon is less about the sadness of Good Friday, and more about the joy of repentance. This can be hard for us to get our minds around since we’ve often been taught to associate repentance with sorrow. Read more →

The Forging of Unity (Living as Resurrection People)

 
Living as Resurrection People: The Forging of Unity
Acts 4:32-35, Psalm 133, 1 John 1:3, 6-7
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
Eastertide
April 15, 2012
Kyndall Renfro

 

Very few people these days have ever experienced church in the rosy, picturesque way it is described in Acts chapter 4: “They were of one heart and soul. God’s grace was powerfully at work among them. There was not a needy person among them.” Of course, the rest of Acts will paint a more realistic portrayal, complete with persecutions, church disputes, and everyday setbacks. But even still, shouldn’t the church of today live up to the ideal in Acts chapter 4 at least partway or some of the time?

Instead, it is more common for people go to church and experience burn-out or manipulation or bullying or judgment or bickering or just plain boredom, and as result it is becoming a trend in my generation to leave the church behind altogether. My peers aren’t necessarily losing faith or abandoning God, but they are exiting the church doors by the herds and most are not coming back. While spirituality remains in vogue, the church itself has been too big of a disappointment to stomach. These days God is easier to spot among the trees than he is to find beneath any steeples, and my generation isn’t afraid to say so out loud and head to the forest, without glancing back at the pews. Read more →

Resurrection Sunday

 
A Sermon for Covenant
Mark 16:1-8
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
Resurrection Sunday
April 8, 2012
Kyndall Renfro

The messenger proclaims, “He has risen! He is not here!”

But in the Gospel of Mark the women run away and tell no one because they are afraid. I don’t know about you but I want these women to get excited, burst out in song, do a little jig, toss confetti, throw a party, something. For all I care they could even go home and gather eggs from the hens, but then dye them all the colors of Spring. They could even tell their children the eggs came from bunnies. I just want them to do something exciting, something out of the ordinary. You know? Celebrate!

But apparently, according to Mark, they don’t feel like celebrating. They feel like hiding. Like running away into some secluded spot where they can sort this thing out. What’s happened to their Savior, really? After the horrific events of the past few days their brains just cannot process one more shock. This is overload, overboard, and they don’t know what to do or what to say, and so they say nothing.

Now in Matthew, in Luke, and in John the women run to the disciples and share the news. In those three Gospels, the women are the very first human beings to proclaim the Good News. But for whatever reason, the book of Mark tells the story differently: “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone because they were afraid.

In this sense, Mark is the most unsatisfying of all four resurrection accounts. The tomb is empty . . . and it stays a secret. But before we get too disappointed by Mark’s ending, let’s rewind and start at the beginning. Read more →

Palm Sunday

 
A Sermon for Covenant
Mark 11:1-11
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
Palm Sunday
April 1, 2012
Kyndall Renfro

 

The Triumphal Entry seems so out of character for Jesus that I find myself struggling to understand its place in the Gospel. We’ve traversed quite a bit of the book of Mark this year, and at every turn Jesus seems to be shushing people, warning them not to spread the news that he is Messiah. “See that you tell no one” is a Markan refrain, like a praise chorus that keeps on repeating itself, only it is a resounding “shhh” rather than an alleluia. Maybe the Hosanna of today’s text is a big relief after all that silence, and that is why we get excited about Palm Sunday. Finally, we get to make some noise. Finally, the secret’s out. Jesus is King, and we can shout it. Finally.

But after the street dust has settled and the palm leaves have been trampled and the boisterous singing has softened, we are left wondering what made Jesus change his tune? I mean, the people do not burst forth in jubilation like characters in a musical, catching Jesus by surprise. The crowd didn’t stage a flash mob in defiance of Jesus’ demand for silence; Jesus himself does all the staging. If you read the story, you get the sense that Jesus encouraged the praise by setting it all up just so. He arranges for the donkey, he plans it out meticulously, he rides in, he accepts the glory. But why? What happened to keeping it quiet, staying beneath the radar, and maintaining a low profile? Read more →

Fifth Sunday of Lent

*Unfortunately, due to a recording glitch, no audio of this week’s sermon is available. The manuscript is below. 

A Sermon for Covenant

John 12:23-28

Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio

March 25, 2012

Kyndall Renfro

 

Unless you die, you will not live. If you love your life, you will lose it. But if you hate your life, you get to keep it, which begs the question, why do you want to keep something you hate?

If you ask me, Jesus is shooting himself in the foot here. No one is going to buy into this flip-flopped philosophy where you lose what you love and gain what you hate. But that’s just the thing about Jesus—he’s not a bit perturbed if no one buys, because he isn’t selling. The Gospel isn’t a product up for purchase, and that frees Jesus from having to sprinkle it with glitter so it catches your attention. He just says it like it is, so that nothing short of the Spirit of God can move you towards it.

Nobody in their right mind buys into an outlook like this one. In the first place, it doesn’t make sense. In the second place, it doesn’t sound like a bit of fun. And while Jesus’ disciples were surely squirming uncomfortably at the sound of Jesus’ words, I reckon that what he said is even stranger for us 21st century Americans.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed the patch of dying cactus by the entrance to our labyrinth—white and gray and withering—but after the recent rains, there are now all sorts of other plant life pushing up through the rot—death being transformed to life right at our feet. But for the most part, this type of natural renewal stays in the peripheral for us modern folk, such that it is not only a challenge to relate to Jesus’ sayings about death; it is near impossible to relate to a kernel of wheat at all. What do we know of planting and harvesting? Jesus’ analogy isn’t helpful for people who buy their bread and veggies at HEB.

In our automobiles and air-conditioned buildings, we stay pretty far removed from nature’s cycle of life. We have buildings to shield us from the seasons. We have grocery stores to cushion us from agriculture. There are conveniences galore to absorb the shock of real life and hard labor, so we don’t have to feel things so acutely as our ancestors. We have machines and medications to artificially prolong life. And even in the face of death, we have gobs of entertainment to distract us from grief and make us feel invincible all over again.

What if all this self-imposed distance from pain and death cuts us off from knowing resurrection? What if we’ve blocked our view of regeneration? My friend Brett visited a primitive village in Southeast Asia where the native people don’t have trashcans, which is to say, they don’t have trash. At all. No waste. We would call that uncivilized—no technology, no gadgets, no appliances, no stuff. But no garbage either. That means nothing gets dumped forever. Nothing is discarded. Even dead bodies, I suppose, return to the ground and nourish it. Every single thing contributing to the cycle of life, nourishing the world even as it dies. Nothing pollutes life; everything feeds life.

Such a way of life is so entirely foreign to ours.  Resurrection has become scarce in modernity. We’ve nearly obliterated it from our line of vision. Jesus’ words about life coming out of death make little sense to us in our pell-mell, fast-food, factory-run world where we no longer plant our own seed and patiently watch for the life that slowly emerges from death. Ours is a world where we throw out our trash rather than reuse it; where we hide things in the attic rather than give them a second life. I am not saying our modern conveniences are evil, but I am suggesting they have stunted our capacity for imagining and believing in the power of resurrection. Sometimes I wonder if we do so much shopping in this country because our imaginations have been dulled—we’ve lost the capacity to create something new out of something old. So we throw out the old and rake in the new, and the overflow in our garbage cans and storage units wail in protest that our actual lives are, in fact, empty.

Resistance to death is, in part, due to a fear of time itself. If you are anything like me, time is often a tyrant that rules me and squeezes me dry, demanding my servitude and punctuality, wearing me thin. Of course we’ve nearly solved the problem of time. We have artificial light to prevent the coming of night, and caffeine to prolong the onset of sleep. All we lack is a machine that could delay the arrival of Monday morning, and we’d be set.

But if the sun never seems to set because the lamp is on, then we won’t notice the sunrise either, and once again, we have obscured our vision. Nature has its ways of reminding us that night brings morning, that winter turns to spring, that death results in rebirth. But I bought a lamp, an alarm clock, an iphone, and a bag of coffee so I am well on my way to defying the constructs of Time. I can beat this thing, I just know it. Unless, of course, Time wasn’t meant to be a problem to conquer but a gift to unwrap, surrendering myself to a Rhythm wiser than I.

Macrina Wiederkehr explains, “The ancients had a different relationship with time than most of us have. Time was not an enemy with which to do battle. For the elders of our historic past, time was more of a loving companion . . .They didn’t spend their lives trying to look eternally youthful. There was no such thing as anti-aging cream . . . dying was a celebration of life.”[1]

There are benefits to modern advances, to be sure, but there is also a dark side. We’ve little vision left for resurrection, and Jesus’ challenge to fall into the ground and die like a seed is a tall order for withered imaginations like ours.

When Jesus says we must hate “life in this world,” I think he is referring to what Charles Foster calls “the complex raft of support mechanisms we wrongly call our lives and think we need.”[2] We have schedules and planners that define us; gadgets, toys, and possessions that own us. There are the coping strategies behind which we hide from the truth about ourselves. There are the vanities and the violences we can’t seem to live without. None of these things are the “life” we gain if we follow Jesus. It will feel like death, pulling ourselves away from our treasures and crutches, but the end result is resurrection.

Easier said than done. We can’t just quit our jobs and walk away from all that is urgent. But we can die, bit by bit, day by day and find more of life along the way. Don’t ask me to explain it. I hardly understand it, but I trust it to be true. The only hope we have is that it worked for Jesus.

There is an age-old wisdom in Jesus words, but more than that, this is his testimony. Jesus is one who died like a kernel of wheat, and out of whom shot forth many seeds of righteousness. The one who gave up his life in order to gain life for himself and for the world. The one who was rejected by many but glorified by the Father.

The mystics tell us that we must be prepared to die if we want to live well. Someone once said, “It’s too bad dying is the last thing we do, because it could teach us so much about life.”[3] The poets tell us there is an art to dying; “we are dying to live,” said one, “all things are passing, moment by moment, birth to death. Take off that cloak of fear, the divine strength you seek is here.”[4] The Rule of St. Benedict instructs monks to keep death daily before their eyes. D.H. Lawrence wrote, “And if tonight my soul may find her peace, and sink in good oblivion, and in the morning wake like a new-opened flower then I have been dipped again in God, and new-created.”

But what about us normal folks who still fear death and suffer grief and are not capable of producing poetry as a way to age gracefully? Is this talk of preparing to die something for the artists and the mystics, but not for us? If it all sounds too morbid, if it makes you queasy, you are not alone. Jesus himself admits to a troubled soul when facing his death, and he says, the logical thing would be to beg for deliverance, to ask God to save him from this hour. But he defies the logical response to death, and instead faces it with willingness, with clarity, with bravery. Death is an enemy, yet it is the gateway to life. If the mystics learned this about death from anybody, they learned it from Jesus.

It is not that death can be magically transformed into something cheery and rosy, warm and bright. Death is as scary and ugly and painful and disorienting as ever, but we recognize that avoidance does nothing to help us to gain life. All the constructs we erect to pad ourselves from harm only insulate us from life, and Jesus says we are stone cold dead inside our beautifully maintained shells. The only way to find life is to stare death right in the face, and tell it straight, “Death, you are ugly, but you cannot obliterate beauty. You are strong, but you have no power. You bring pain, but you can’t eliminate joy. You are only a shadow, and the Light is bigger than you are. You will come one day, and I will surrender peacefully, but even still, you will not have the final word. I accept you, and that only makes Life all the sweeter.”

As a Wise One once prayed, Lord, “Robe me with wisdom. Enable me to be at home with impermanence. Teach me the dance of surrender. O make of me a great letting go. May the sacred emptiness of my life help others to know fullness. May I never fear a death that brings me life. Let me rejoice in the harvest of each dying day.”[5]

 


[1] Macrina Wiederkehr, Seven Sacred Pauses (Sorin Books 2008), 121-122.

[2] Charles Foster, The Sacred Journey, The Ancient Practices Series, ed. Phyllis Tickle (Nelson 2010), 70.

[3] Robert Herford, quoted in Seven Sacred Pauses by Macrina Wiederkehr, 132.

[4] Macrina Wiederkehr, Seven Sacred Pauses, 125.

[5] Wiederkehr, 178.

Fourth Sunday of Lent

 

A Sermon for Covenant

John 3:1-21

Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio

March 18, 2012

Kyndall Renfro

 

This text isn’t an easy nut to crack. The longer Jesus talks, the more confused Nicodemus feels. The more confused Nicodemus feels, the longer Jesus talks.  Honestly, this wobbly dialogue is a familiar pattern in the Gospel of John.

Jesus is always talking to someone, and the someones are often confused by his talking—be it the woman at the well, the disciples, the Pharisees. Nicodemus, however, is the guinea pig of John’s Gospel—the first one to approach Jesus and to hear those fateful words, “Very truly, I tell you . . .” followed by some strange sayings. Whatever Nicodemus was expecting. . . what he got was probably a surprise. But let’s not get ahead of the story just yet . . .

First off, can you imagine, Nicodemus—Pharisee, strict follower of the Law, a guy who has probably never done a rebellious thing in his life—sneaking off in the middle of the night to visit Jesus? He knows there are some in his rank who are suspicious of Jesus and some who downright fear Jesus is a threat to Judaism. But Nicodemus has a theory that this wonder-worker is from God. In fact, he must meet this Jesus for himself. Face to face. Man to man. He must go, not as an authority to question Jesus but as a true seeker. Of course, the other religious leaders would hardly agree with Nicodemus’ approach, so he decides to go secretly, quietly, cloaked by the cover of night. He sneaks through the city in the dark, trying not to be seen. “Good grief, I’m not committing a crime,” he whispers to his pounding heart, trying to no avail to reason with his fears. He practices his opening lines to distract himself from his growing anxiety.

When he is finally in front of Jesus, he delivers his lines without a hitch, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” To say this feels good, feels right. Nicodemus has been thinking and praying in turmoil about Jesus’ identity for weeks now, but as the confession exits his troubled mind, past his lips, and out into the open, he knows he has arrived at his conclusion. He half-expects to see a look of pleasant surprise in Jesus’ eye, maybe even a glint of pride.

Instead, he glances into Jesus’ eyes and detects sadness, and the reply is solemn: “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God, without being born again.”

Nicodemus hadn’t really given much thought to what Jesus would say back, but somehow this feels all wrong. It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t even fit.

And this is the start of a messy dialogue in which Nicodemus never really gets answers, and Jesus, frankly, never makes a whole lot of sense. It begins to feel like a classroom with a teacher who is too smart for his own good. The perplexed pupil struggles to understand. The clever teacher thinks of just the analogy, but the analogy is equally complex, well over the pupil’s head. The longer the teacher talks, the more lost the pupil feels.

The bottom line, as far as I can tell, is that Jesus wants to communicate that knowledge about Jesus isn’t enough. Knowledge alone will not cut it, and I imagine that is why Jesus’ answer is so mysterious. If Jesus had explained things all straightforward and simple like, Nicodemus might have been tempted to think Jesus was just offering a bit of information—one more line for Nicodemus to add to his confession of faith, and then he’d have it.

But instead of explaining things, Jesus requires something so extraordinary that is seems literally impossible, entirely incomprehensible: to be born of the water and the Spirit, to be born again, to be born from above. Why, it is almost as if Jesus is inviting Nicodemus into an entirely different life, where the language is strange to your ears and the wind in your face is the very Spirit of God and everything is as new as when you emerged from your mother’s womb and the sheer mystery of utter newness is frightening. Nicodemus had come for a bit of understanding from the up and rising new Teacher—he hadn’t planned to enter a whole new world fraught with startling discoveries and upside-down logic.

“How can this be????” he stutters. This is the second time he has asked, and you can hear the frustration and bewilderment mounting in his voice.

“You are Israel’s teacher, and do you not understand these things?” Jesus shakes Nicodemus’ self-confidence in his position to the core.

Of course, Nicodemus doesn’t know it, but he is about to hear first-hand what will become perhaps Jesus’ most famous words—the line about how God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life . . . but, Jesus adds, “those who do not believe stand condemned.” And here is the kicker, “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people have loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. All those who do evil hate the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.”

Perhaps “people who love darkness” is only a general term Jesus uses for those who resist him. It seems more likely that Jesus is also referring specifically to Nicodemus’ own preference for darkness. Jesus noticed to the way Nicodemus snuck in to see him under the cover of night. Not only does Jesus suspect that Nicodemus fails to get it, Jesus thinks his arrival by night is proof. Nicodemus is curious about the Light, but he still prefers the dark.

Notice that nowhere in the story does Nicodemus repent. Nowhere does it say Nicodemus became a disciple. Nowhere does it say that Nicodemus dropped his baggage, abandoned his status, left his fears behind him, and followed Jesus. We are left to assume that he skulked right back home, heavy beneath the weight of Jesus’ words, but probably grateful for the cover of darkness to hide his shame.

I can relate to Nicodemus’ love for the cover of darkness. I too, am equally intrigued by Jesus. I find him engaging, I want to know more, I think he is obviously from God, someone I ought to know. But I would sort of prefer to hide my confession from the crowds. It is not Jesus who embarrasses me. It is some of the people who claim to love him too. There are those who are terribly misguided about what Jesus is actually like and those who are just downright frauds, and I don’t really want to associated with a one of them. Don’t get me wrong. If it were only Jesus and Jesus’ true followers that I would be associated with, I could handle the scandal. I could befriend Mary, the pregnant virgin, John the Baptist, the locust-eating desert-dweller, Mary-Magdalene who’d been healed of seven demons, Zacchaeus, who robbed the people but then gave it all back fourfold. If I befriend them, and people think I’m crazy, so be it. I can swallow my pride, knowing in my heart I’ve befriended some true disciples.

But then there’s everybody else—the fakes, the real kooks, the con-artists, the religious bigots, the politicians, the hate-mongers, the money-snatchers, the misogynists, the militant fundamentalists. I don’t know which group gets under your skin—if it’s the overly-emotional sort or the intellectually snobbish type, if it’s the Republicans or the Democrats or those truly outlandish Christians who object to voting altogether. There is some “Christian” group with whom we would like to avoid association.

It is not that we cannot strive for a distinctive faith that stands out from the general crowd of Jesus-fans, but saying that no matter how much we want to be entirely separate from the masses of supposed devotees and establish ourselves as the irrefutably genuine ones, we can’t. This is the mess we find ourselves in, and it is just the kind of mess that Jesus graciously wades through day in and day out. He walks among this whole motley swarm of confused, half-hearted, messed-up, wanna-be disciples, and to every last one of us, Jesus keeps offering grace and extending the invitation, “Come, follow me, step into the light.”

Personally, this drives me nuts. I want Jesus to give up on the frauds, at the very least. Also, I wish he’d abandon the hateful types altogether and perhaps send a blinding revelation to the uninformed type, something they couldn’t possibly miss or misunderstand. When it comes to faith, I want in, I really do, but I want them out. I don’t want us to share the same title of Christ-follower when I feel their lifestyle, their philosophy, and frankly, their status before God is so different from mine. But Jesus says I must step out into the light and throw myself in with the worst of ‘em, and I don’t like that. I’d rather skulk back into the night and nurse my faith in private. Of course, when I am my most honest, I know that there is always a bit of fraud, a bit of hate, a bit of ignorance inside me too . . . (but surely not on that scale. Surely not.)

The Jewish situation, of course, was quite different from our current American one, but still, I find Nicodemus to be a kindred spirit to my elitism. Nicodemus just cannot bear that he must emerge fully into the light. Leave the cover of darkness and thus risk his status, his position, his power. He wasn’t willing to throw himself in with the whole lot of uneducated sinners and so he sneaks back off into the cover of the night, not willing, not believing—at least, not believing enough to enter a second birth from above. Nicodemus passes up the chance for new life and heads back home, where people still respect him. However, the story doesn’t end here.

This isn’t the last that we hear of Nicodemus. He shows up twice more in the Gospel of John.

In chapter 7, the Pharisees send the temple guards to arrest Jesus, but the guards return dazed and empty-handed, saying of Jesus, “No one ever spoke the way this man does.”

“You mean he has deceived you also?” the Pharisees retort in righteous anger. “Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed in him? No! But this mob knows nothing of the law—there is a curse on them.”

Nicodemus is in the room. He hears his peers claim with confidence that not a one of them have believed Jesus. He hears the way they mock the ignorant crowd and call them cursed. His colleagues have drawn a line in the sand, but Nicodemus isn’t sure he wants to be on their side anymore, even if the other side is an uneducated mob. He ventures a defense, albeit a weak one, of the man Jesus, “Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he has been doing?” Of course, the rest of the room doesn’t know it, but Nicodemus has been to his own private hearing, and though he walked away, he apparently didn’t walk away with a sense of Jesus’ guilt. In fact, his own guilt has been weighing on him since that night, and perhaps it was there among his peers that he starts to feel fed up with his darkness and his hiding.

But we don’t hear about Nicodemus again until the very end of the Gospel. Jesus has just breathed his last. He hangs lifeless from a cross. The religious leaders have won. The mobs have been silenced and scattered. Even the disciples are huddled behind locked doors for fear of the Jewish leaders.

And who do you suppose shows up to care for the beaten, bloody, lifeless body? Joseph of Arimathea, who had been a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jewish leaders. And Nicodemus, who also believed in secret and who we thought never really became a disciple at all. The two scaredy-cats, who loved the secrecy of darkness, are the ones who come forward at the hour of greatest danger to do something for Jesus. Jesus, who is not even alive to thank them, reward them, bless them, or affirm their courage. It is not the people who loudly confessed their discipleship that show up here. Not the people who waved the palm branches and cried Hosanna. Besides for the women, it is just these two men who show up—two men who had been hiding all this time.

That means there is profound hope for the cowardly, for the uncertain, and for the hesitant.

Perhaps it was not until Jesus was raised up on the cross that Nicodemus finally fully believed, finally saw the Kingdom of God. In other words, respectable Nicodemus was born again, from above. Precisely at the moment in the story where things were as bleak and as incomprehensible as possible, Nicodemus finds his courage and enters the light. Most everyone thought the light had just been snuffed out, but Nicodemus didn’t care what they thought or worry about what they would do, and the new sensation of not-caring filled him with light during the world’s darkest hour.

When Nicodemus first paid Jesus a visit, Jesus had made the world sound pretty black and white: there is light and there is dark, there is condemnation and there is salvation, there is belief and there is unbelief, there is evil and there is truth. But Nicodemus walked away a mixed jumble of all those things, like a big mass of gray, indecisive and unclear, disbelieving his own belief. I don’t know if Jesus knew, right at that moment, that it would be Nicodemus who buried him, but I think Jesus knew Nicodemus would be back, that the darkness couldn’t keep him indefinitely. I think Jesus was sad to see him to go, but he believed, the same way Jesus believes it for all of us, that Nicodemus’ story wasn’t over.

I am utterly persuaded that identifying with Jesus is something we live into, bit by small bit. Sometimes we hide away in fear. Sometimes we swallow our fear and come out into the light, only to dart right back into the shadows. Sometimes our love for Jesus wins the day; other days our inner sense of superiority wins instead. Sometimes the light of revelation finally dawns on our wearied souls, and sometimes we are more confused than we can bear. But someday, somewhere, everyone around us will think the light has been snuffed out for good, and somehow we will be the ones who see Light all ‘round and we will say to ourselves, “Why, the world looks brand-new, like I’ve just been born, and this wind feels like God’s spirit against my flesh, and I am filled with Light.”

May the hope of Christ keep its hold on you until Light has dawned in every dark corner of your troubled soul. Amen.

Second Sunday of Lent

 

A Sermon for Covenant

Mark 8:31-38

Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio

February 19, 2012

Kyndall Renfro

 

I once read about a woman whose nose had been cut off. She lived in a country where her husband belonged to a group the government considered subversive, so naturally, the government cut off her nose and she became a walking billboard, which read, “Don’t mess with us. Sincerely and emphatically, your government.”

In a similar way, during the year 6 CE, the Jews watched the Romans crucify two thousand Galilean insurrectionists—crosses lining the highway like graphic billboards announcing the fate of those who dared to defy the powers that be.

So when Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me,” his disciples had seen such billboards with their very own eyes. The realities of violence and injustice hit close to home.

But how do we even begin to translate Jesus’ message when our noses are entirely safe? When a cross is something we find in the jewelry store, not in a torture chamber?

Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me.” But if you’ve never been a prisoner, a conquered nation, or a spoil of war it is difficult to translate this saying from Jesus.

Still, Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me.”

For centuries, we’ve been mishandling this text. In our confusion, we’ve abused its meaning in all manner of ways. A battered woman is told to return to her abusive husband in the name of “bearing her cross.” One country takes up arms against another country, and on their banner of war, they put the sign of the cross. Other religions infringe on the dominance of Christendom, and the church claims it is being persecuted, rather than purified.

This little line from Jesus—“take up your cross”—is more troublesome than we like to admit.

It is confusing because our political situation is so different from the Jewish one. It is confusing because instruments of torture make for disconcerting religious symbols.

Peter wasn’t so happy about this cross business when he found out. Jesus announced that the Son of Man must suffer and die, and Peter wasn’t at all pleased. In fact, the news made his stomach churn with such anxiety, that he just knew this was all wrong and needed to be corrected. He had the audacity to rebuke Jesus—just imagine, scolding Jesus—but I think this had less to do with Peter’s arrogance and more to do with Peter’s gut-wrenching concern for the man he’d come to love. If Jesus died, all would be lost, surely.

Jesus rebuked Peter right back—just imagine, being called Satan by Jesus—but I think this had less to do with Jesus’ anger at Peter and more to do with Jesus’ gut-wrenching determination to stay the course and resist any temptation that would dissuade him from the work of redemption. Lest we get confused about what it means to live sacrificially, let us note this is not a picture of someone who loses self in order to meet the whims and pleasures of another. Jesus is one who clings tenaciously to his purpose, to his identity, to his calling, to his soul and releases with abandon his grip on life, on comfort, on personal gain. A sacrifice he chooses in strength, not a sacrifice he succumbs to in helplessness.

Which is all well and good for Jesus, but then he continues the call to us as well. “If any of you wants to be my disciple, you must deny yourself and take up your cross and follow me.”

Peter has been silenced, I suppose, after the rather sharp rebuke from Jesus, but I wish he would speak up again and voice what we are all thinking, “What on earth does that mean???” By this point in Christian history, Jesus’ words may be so familiar that they don’t disturb anymore, but if you had seen with your own eyes the thousands of crosses stretched along the highway, positioned there by the Romans to put fear in your heart, these lines from Jesus would not be lyrics you put to music, singing along with your hands raised, drunk on devotion. These are the kind of words that sober you right up, punch you in the gut, knock the breath out, make you vomit.

I tried, this week, to face the reality of what Jesus’ words were really saying, and I have to admit, it didn’t go so well. Let me explain.

First of all, I have a strange bond with Scripture. The intrigue and the mystery of the Holy Book captivate me. Whereas some people shy away, the confusing parts compel me to explore further. I probe the depths of Scripture, and she digs around in my soul. I am playful with her, but my imaginings lead me to life-altering discoveries. I am also quite serious with her—I am not afraid to ask her my most difficult questions. I trust her to take the heat. I expect her to respond. I depend on her faithfulness, that she will not reject me no matter what I bring to the text.

But like any relationship, the passion is hardly consistent. Some days the fire fuels me with life, and I think my collision with Scripture is the best thing that ever happened to me. Some days the fire burns me, and I think there’s no way this relationship is going to last. Sometimes we fight. She makes me angry—she demands something I don’t want to give, or, even worse, she refuses to make herself clear. I become convinced she is playing games with me and I have played the fool. Sometimes I just know that she has betrayed me.

God knows I have betrayed her. At times, I leave her. Eventually, I always return, because I don’t know where else I’d go. Sometimes the reunion is sweet and tender, like a blooming garden after the rains. Sometimes I return and everything around us feels flat and lifeless, like a shriveled up plant after the drought, and we just hold hands and weather the rest of the dry spell together.

This whole affair got all the more intense when two of us decided to take up preaching. We made a pact together to create sermons for the people, and I said, “Look. No more funny business from you. It’s not just me getting burned anymore when you decide to be all ambiguous. There’s a whole group of people who need us to work.” And Scripture retorted, “No more funny business from you either. It’s not just me who will feel rejected if you wander off. There’s a whole group of people who need us to stay faithful.” I said, “Oh dear! Maybe we shouldn’t even try . . .” She rolled her eyes, “Don’t be such a wimp.”

Jesus, apparently, had been eavesdropping, because he piped in out of nowhere, “I would have used a nicer word than wimp, but I am calling you to this, and the only way this tumultuous relationship is going to work is if you let me help.”

“Why is that man always right?” we grumbled and then we sighed, “Okay, okay. Sign us up. We’re going to be a preacher.”

We’ve been getting along rather nicely ever since, to tell you the truth. Until this week, and I don’t know if was her fault or mine, but when we sat down to sermonize, there was no chemistry. I opened her up and read Christ’s words and Peter’s rebuke over and over, and suddenly felt as if I had no idea what it meant to carry your cross. It was in no way an unfamiliar text, but it was as if all the meaning had drained away and I was looking at something foreign. I stared at Scripture, unblinking, for a very long time, “Say something already.” She stared right back in defiance, “I already did. My words have been right here for centuries.” I gritted my teeth. “You know what I mean. Come alive. Move me. Change me. Show off a little so I can catch hold of something preachable.” She gave me the silent treatment.

Finally I gave up on her and sent a text message to a preacher friend of mine. “I am numb to the text this week,” I confessed, “And I don’t know how to snap out of the numbness.”

My preacher friend was more sympathetic to me than Scripture had been, that’s for sure. She was compassionate, and then she said, “The goal isn’t to snap out of the numbness.”

“Okay,” I replied, “can you remind me what the goal is then?”

She said, “You are being taken to a place you don’t want to go, like Peter, and that is where you are being asked to preach from.”

I reread her response about five times. “How did you know that was the text I was preaching on, the one about Peter?”

She didn’t know.

Also, she added, “Your goal is to be carried.”

This whole time I am trying to figure out what it means to carry my cross when I don’t live under Roman occupation, what it means to lose my life but find my soul, what it means to forfeit the world and gain Christ, what it means to take up my cross when there are so many swirling ideologies of what it means to be Christian in a country like this one. And the point, the real point, all along was that Jesus carried a cross first, and in carrying his cross, he carries me. The road through pain or numbness, suffering or death is no longer a lonely one or an impossible one. It is pain defined by the hope of resurrection. Jesus can say, “Follow me,” because he went first and made it possible.

 

I went back to the Scriptures. She had a wry grin. “You’re ornery,” I said.

“Jesus put me up to it,” she protested, but I could tell she was pleased with herself.

“Yeah, but He probably didn’t tell you to be so stubborn about it.”

“Oh, never mind that. You still wanna be a preacher?”

“I suppose so, yes.”

“Me too.”

“Well, looks like we’re stuck with each other for a good long while then.”

“Looks like it. Welcome back.”

Beloved of God, the season of Lent is a rude awakening the knocks the breath out of us year after year. Like a glaring billboard, reminding us that the way of Christ is riddled with more sorrows than we have the courage to face and the roadway is littered with ugly scenes that will hurt. But Christ is up ahead, and his determination is all we need. When we protest that this cannot be the way, Jesus will call us out for our devilish notions, and then gently remind us that our job isn’t to trudge along but to be carried. He went first, so that we could make it. Our responsibility is to resist running off and to wait for the rescue. To deny ourselves that urge to run and hide but to look ahead instead to where Jesus is paving a course. We are not alone.

The Son of Man must suffer and die. The Son of Man will rise again, and we will rise with Him. Praise be to God. Amen.

First Sunday of Lent

 

A Lent Sermon for Covenant

(Psalm 25:1-10, sort of)

Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio

February 26, 2012

Kyndall Renfro

When I write a sermon, I always, always start with the Bible. I ponder over a passage. I sit with it, think on it, pray over it, study it. I let a passage incubate, and, eventually, out pops a sermon. Some preachers begin with a topic (such as marriage or prayer), or they craft a series title and plug in appropriate Scripture passages later. But not me. I have this conviction that the task of the sermon is first and foremost to bring Scripture to life for the community, in hopes that God might make an appearance. This means my sermons don’t fit neatly into three points, and if it’s not always clear to you what my main lesson was, that’s probably because I didn’t have a main lesson to begin with. That is to say, I am a little “hands off” with sermons. I try to resurrect a biblical text, slap some flesh and skin on it, give a gentle push, and say, “Go.” But once I’ve given it legs, where that story chooses to walk inside of you is beyond my knowledge, my reach. It might take a stroll through your marriage, it might touch your prayer life, it might roll around in your identity or stir up your sense of vocation, it might stomp right through your finances, or it might make a tender appearance in that place where you store your hurts. But I never get to know where it’s been (I’m just sorta hoping it went somewhere worthwhile for somebody). My sermons rarely come back to me and give a report, and like a parent I have to find the grace to let them go, to give them their independence, to entrust them to God’s hands in the hopes that he’s a better steward of holy words than I am. Yes, my sermons are my babies, and like any mother, I am tempted to stifle them—to try and force them to grow a certain way, to accomplish a certain thing, and of course, to make me proud.

So whether my idea to do things differently this week was a heavenly inspiration or a maternal cry for control, I honestly don’t know. All I know is that after today, I’m going right back to the same ole’, same ole, because the regular pattern is easier, and I trust myself better when I start with the text.

This week I started with a topic, and tried to add the Bible later. If that offends you, please keep in my mind that I’ve already repented and come Tuesday morning, I’ll be back to the Holy Book with a renewed fervor to keep my own agenda out. But this week I have an agenda, to tell you the truth. It’s less of an agenda for you—what I, the Pastor, hope to teach You, the Congregation, and more of an agenda for myself and whoever else might want to listen in.

You see, I am on pilgrimage this Lenten season—I am seeking out the practice of confession—and if I had thought this over in advance, the first Sunday of Lent isn’t the best time to preach on the findings of my pilgrimage, seeing as how I’ve just begun. But here I am, standing before you, trying to give the missions trip report before I’ve left the country.

So, we’ll think of it more like this: I’m packing my bags for a pilgrimage, and you came over to help me pack (which you might regret later). Of course, the best way to pack for a theological journey is to start by unpacking, and words like sin and confession have a rather hefty set of baggage associated with them already. So we’ve got our work cut out for us. I suspect we won’t finish today.

I am on a pilgrimage looking for confession because I fear it has gone missing. If not on a universal scale, at least in my own life, and possibly in others. And if it is missing, there is a reason, and I think the reason is that we got tired of the judgmental and legalistic talk in the church, so we threw that vulgar language out the door, but discarded the wholesome language of sin, confession, and forgiveness alongside it.

Madeleine L’Engle writes, “I do find the lack of penitence in our . . . liturgies extraordinary. Here the world’s in the worst mess we’ve been in for generations and we no longer get down on our knees and say, “I’m sorry. Help!”[1]  Another writer says, “It is not that the Sacrament of Reconciliation has been tried and found wanting; it mostly hasn’t been tried.”[2]

There is, I confess, a lack of confession in my life, and it sounds as if I am not the only one. This Lenten season I am not so much hunting for a theology of confession; I desire a practice of it, and practice has more to do with the look and feel and sound and regularity of a thing than it has to do with the philosophy of it.

So instead of reading about why we confess, I’m trying to read about the mechanics, the how, the action verbs, the words we say and the words we hear, the things we feel. Sometimes when your own tradition seems to have muddied the waters for you, it helps to visit your neighbors and learn from them. For example, Catholics have what they call the sacrament of penance, recently renamed the sacrament of reconciliation, and I am wondering if the concrete practice of going to confession helps them grasp something about sin and forgiveness in a tangible way, in a way I missed growing up in a church where confession was always, always private and never corporate, always internal and never out loud, always subjective and never filtered by a community, always a monologue without a response. I just wonder, sometimes, what it would be like: the physical act of getting up and going to the booth. The hard ground beneath my knees when I kneel. The sound of my voice saying out loud that I have failed, and most importantly, to hear a human voice respond, “Your sins are forgiven.” What would it do for my soul if my body knew a practice called confession?

The best thing to do might be to try it out for myself, but until I work up the nerve, Dorothy Day is helping me out. In the opening of her book, The Long Loneliness, Dorothy Day describes confession in sensational detail, and I invite you to listen and experience with me, not by thinking about what confession means, but about how confession feels, sounds, smells.

 

. . . (lengthy insert from The Long Loneliness) . . .

 

What strikes me about Catholic confession is the earthiness of it, the awkwardness, the regularity, the difficulty, the submission, both the embarrassment and the comfort of having someone listen, the obligation to tell to your secrets on a set day whether or not you are ready, and, the way you just get up and go about the rest of your day when you are finished. There are, of course, biblical examples where people pull out the sackcloth and ashes and make a grand show of their repentance, but that strikes me as an exception more than the norm. When I read about the regular, weekly confessions of a woman like Dorothy Day or when I read the lines of confession in a biblical Psalm, side by side with thanksgiving and joy, it makes me think that confessing my “drab, monotonous” sins as Dorothy calls them is meant to be less of an emotional, tearful upheaval and more of repetitive but healthy habit.

I certainly find this to be true in marriage. When Nate and I are in the regular habit of apologizing, no matter how small the offense—“sorry, dear, I shouldn’t have snapped at you”—that is when our marriage makes the most sense. It is when we let the offenses build up that we end up estranged from one another and in need of a massive overhaul to bring us back together. When we are in the regular habit of confessing our offenses and asking forgiveness, it is no big deal. Common-place apologies rarely cause tears; there is very little angst. A regular confession creates very little splash in our daily lives, yet neglecting it is like building a dam that holds back all the pressure. Eventually it will overflow, with a wave of regrets bound to hurt us both.

I wonder if Christian confession is supposed to be a habit, almost mundane in its ordinariness, but if we neglect the habit, our sins will overwhelm us like a flood.

I wonder if confession is less about realizing how awful I am, and more about a simple honesty and authenticity. If confession first involves admitting that I was made in the Image of God and then admitting my complicity in the marring of that image? But if I haven’t learned the truth of the first—my God-given goodness—then how I can possibly discern my sins appropriately?

I wonder if Christian confession is supposed to involve the community—not because we can’t pray alone, but because we can’t always pray alone. The priesthood of the believer means that we are as priests to one another, and faith is not an isolated experience.

I wonder if Christian confession isn’t really Christian when we don’t conclude with the assurance of pardon. Is it all that “Christian” to confess your sins, if you leave out Christ’s response: “Your sins are forgiven”?

As you can see, I am wondering a lot of things. A sermon, I suppose, tries to give answers. But not this sermon. And not me. All I know is to invite you along for the journey. I am hunting for confession this Lenten season because I fear it has gone missing. If not on a universal scale, at least in my own life, and possibly in some of yours.

Lent strikes me as the right time to bare my soul a little bit, to grow more honest, to be less afraid of who I am. I see Jesus’ diligent courage and his extravagant love on his way to the cross, and it gives me a bit of nerve to be myself. No matter what I find when I go to confession, it must be better to be myself, exposed to God’s love, than hidden and covered, lost in fear.

If it helps at all for me to say it out loud, when I look at all of you, I see something lovely. But just in case you’re worried that deeper honesty would reveal something ugly, it might be better if I quoted Jesus to you instead: “Beloved, your sins are forgiven.” Amen.



[1] Madeleine L’Engle, The Irrational Season, 57.

[2] Sandra DeGidio, O.S.M., Reconciliation: Sacrament with a Future, 4 (her paraphrase of G.K. Chesterson).

“Who Knows”: An Ash Wednesday Homily

“Who Knows?”

A Homily for Ash Wednesday:

Joel 2:12-15

Kyndall Renfro

February 22, 2012

The season of Lent is a pilgrimage.

For those who are familiar and comfortable and at home in our faith, Lent is the season where we enter unknown territory and become as foreigners. Lent is the friend who shows up on your doorstep and pulls you out of the house for a road trip when you’d rather just stay inside where it’s cozy. Lent interrupts your comfort and rattles your security. Perhaps it is the difficulty of a fast, perhaps it is the somber tone of the music, perhaps it is the feel of ashes on your forehead—but something about Lent is bound to invade your comfort.

Then again, for those of us who are already feeling out of place in the faith, Lent greets us like a fellow traveler, and says, “I’ve got a map if you’ve got some walking boots,” and suddenly we find ourselves with companionship on what we mistook for a lonely road. Perhaps it is the dusty colors, perhaps it is the stories about disciples who betray and misunderstand and mess-up, perhaps it is all the talk of death and suffering and confession—but something about Lent is bound to offer friendship to your brokenness.

This Scripture passage from Joel chapter 2 is a classic Ash Wednesday text, and I think that is because it speaks of a journey of repentance, a voyage of returning to God. This isn’t a one-time mental decision; it is a movement back towards. Joel 2 is a passage full of action words for the repentant.

But I find myself riveted to the seeming ambiguity of God’s activity. I hear an iffy-ness in the phrase: “Who knows? He may turn and relent. Who knows?” Is that really good motivation to repent—maybe, perhaps, possibly God will be merciful? Is this a worthy image of God with which to pack my bags for the journey home?

Perhaps it is. Just the image we need. “Who knows? He may turn and relent. Who knows?”

Of course, we do know. As people who confess the truth of Resurrection, we know the end of the story. We know all about mercy and forgiveness and redemption and salvation. We know God will respond to our confession. We know—at least conceptually—how endless grace really is.

But during Lent we suspend that knowledge—not entirely, but partially. We hold forgiveness at arm’s length because the rest of the year forgiveness comes so readily, we might be tempted to think we don’t really need it. We might forget we would be lost without it. We might forget we are broken and needy and we might forget that healing and help came to us at great cost. We might forget to start the journey at all, thinking we’re already where we need to be.

Lent is an attempt to live in and with the phrase, “Who Knows?” Lent is like living in the land of uncertainty all over again, sojourning through the wilderness with the hope of a Promise Land tucked in our hearts. Like the Israelites, we cannot see past the desert sands to the home that awaits us, but we faithfully eat our manna by day and dream of milk and honey by night. Lent is like journeying side-by-side with Jesus down the dusty road to Golgotha with increasing dread in our hearts, wishing to avoid death, but knowing we must face it. Like the disciples, we do not yet understand what Jesus meant when he said the Son of Man would rise again, but despite our lack of understanding and our uncertain hope, we refuse to leave our Lord.

In this day and time, we are so accustomed to the language of grace and forgiveness, Joy and Jesus, redemption and resurrection, that we could easily forget death and repentance came first, and how for that long and terrible span of three days, we did not know what would become of Jesus and his message about the coming Kingdom. For three long days, he waited in a grave and we waited in angst. We had to choose whether to huddle together in the room with the disciples, holding onto to one another in shaky faith and uncomfortable anticipation, or whether we would leave the faith altogether, bereft of hope.

To observe Lent it to huddle together, the uncertainty of the future helping us to take an honest look at our own lives. We face the reality of our own imminent death. We make confessions and take steps of repentance, hoping hoping that God will turn and relent and leave behind a blessing.

To take the mark of the ashes on our forehead is to remember with vividness our own smallness, our temporality, our limits, and rather than fight to deny them, we accept them without fear. We stop turning a blind eye to our lives, and we view our own selves with honesty and openness—neither covering our sins with arrogant justifications nor covering our gifts with misplaced modesty. We stop, for just a moment, being afraid of who we are, and we suspend our fear of death. We look death right in the face, knowing it is time to let go of our sick parts, knowing that the brave acceptance of our mortality helps us see the beauty of living, knowing that the road to resurrection is marked with hardship and courage, knowing that an empty tomb only comes after the prayer of surrender in the Garden.

May we, this Lenten season, have the courage to look honestly at ourselves and have the hope to ask forgiveness. May we embark on a journey, not knowing what hardships will befall us or what graces will find us. May we remember our Creator, who created us from dust, who created all things good, who forgives us when we mar the goodness, and who will welcome us home when we return to the ground. Amen.

Transfiguration Sunday

 

A Sermon for Covenant

Mark 9:2-9

Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio

Transfiguration Sunday

February 19, 2012

Kyndall Renfro

 

Peter is always the rash one, the stick-his-foot-in-his-mouth one, the do-now-ask-forgiveness-later one. His bravery is a great quality, really, but it also gets him in a lot of trouble. He’s the only disciple to ever walk on water. He’s also the only disciple to nearly drown. He’s the only disciple to defend Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, but he over does it and Jesus has to reattach a soldier’s ear. Peter is the only disciple to declare his loyalty loud and clear at the Last Supper, but before the rooster crows, Peter has already broken his promise three times. He is the first disciple to call Jesus Messiah, but that conversation takes a sharp turn for the worse, ending with Jesus calling Peter “Satan,” which, needless to say, snuffs out Peter’s short flame of glory in a hurry.

Peter is the guy in class who can’t sit still, who won’t shut up, who see-saws wildly from really high to really low, and yet he has these flashes of brilliance that amaze everyone. He probably needed Ritalin, but he met Jesus instead, and since we don’t know much about Peter pre-discipleship, it is not clear whether a large dose of the Messiah calmed him down or wound him up all the more. He certainly keeps the Gospel stories entertaining, but more than that, he keeps them human. He lives big and he falls hard, but whether he is standing tall preaching up a storm or on his knees begging for help and forgiveness, he is all about Jesus from either posture. He is the kind of friend you can barely live with, but you could never live without. His loyalty is of the ferocious, untamable sort—running to and fro ahead of the pack, convinced he knows the way. But when he strays too far, he’s never too proud to return.

And so it is no wonder—no wonder at all—that when Jesus is transfigured into a shimmering blaze of white and Moses and Elijah appear suddenly as if they hadn’t been hundreds of years in the grave, Peter is the one who opens his big mouth. The others are stunned speechless with terror, but of course, Peter tries to say something when things blow up too big for words before their eyes. Of course it is Peter.

“Rabbi! Uh . . . (clears throat) . . . . um, it is good for us to be here. Let us put us put up three shelters! One for you, of course, one for Moses and one for Elijah!”

Whoever recorded this story felt embarrassed for Peter, so they wrote in a parenthetical statement to explain: “He didn’t know what to say, poor guy, because they were so terrified.”

The other disciples were terrified too, but Peter is the only one who doesn’t know how to keep quiet when he is bewildered. Poor Peter. How embarrassing. He and James and John are privy to an epiphany, which is a fancy word for God’s glory on display, and all Peter can think to do is build tents as if Moses and Elijah had come back from the grave to roast s’mores with Jesus over a campfire.

But really, if you think it about, Peter’s suggestion isn’t all that unnatural. Way back when God’s presence showed up in the wilderness for the Israelites, for example, the people built God a tabernacle, which, really, was a giant tent in which God could dwell among them, and God’s people have more or less continued this tradition ever since. God makes his presence known; we build him a tabernacle, a temple, a synagogue, a church. It’s fairly standard practice, really.

So Peter’s suggestion may have been sensible after all. The text doesn’t really say why Peter wants to build the shelters, but I imagine Peter was familiar with the Old Testament and with the tabernacle. So when he uses the word “shelter,” I suspect he is not thinking about tents that would shelter the three holy men from the elements.

Because when I read the Old Testament, I get the sense that the people of Israel needed the Tabernacle to shelter them from God, whose glory was so great it would singe their very skin off if they got too close. God was among them, but proximity to God was not a thing to be played with.  The tent folds of the tabernacle enclosed the Holy of Holies like the glass at the zoo encloses the lion, as if to say, “You can look, not touch.” If you wanted to leave the tabernacle with your limbs intact, you didn’t dare stick a single appendage behind that big curtain where the ferocious glory of God resided.

I suspect the Transfiguration was a little like coming across a lion in the wild, no glass barrier between you. Up on the mountainside, Peter, James, and John get a glimpse of just how divine this human, Jesus, really is, and immediately Peter wants to cover the glory with a tent. Maybe he knows the shining whiteness is beautiful enough to burn him. Maybe he knows how dirty and unworthy he is. Maybe he realizes how dangerous it is that he should bear witness, like staring wide-eyed into direct sunlight. Maybe his suggestion to build tents is less of a foolish foible and more like an adrenaline rush of self-protective genius.

No one gives him time to start construction, but immediately, a cloud drops from heaven and shelters them all, like a fog to shield their eyesight and a vapory coat of armor to guard their bodies. The voice they hear confirms what their eyes have seen—this man, transfigured before them, is the very Son of God.

The disciples shake off their stupor and see that suddenly everything looks back to normal . . . and yet, nothing will ever be the same. The shine is no longer visible; the deceased prophets have disappeared; the mountain looks like a mountain; amazingly the grass is still green, not singed. But nothing at all is the same as it was before—not really.

Because the Son of God is now on earth as a human, and forever after the lines separating God from humanity are ripped asunder and the realms of heaven and earth are irrevocably mingled, such that earth will never be the same, and, I dare say, neither will heaven. God does not in anyway diminish as God, and we humans stay human, but something opens up between the two, such that the veil in the temple will rip in two on its own accord to dramatically express in symbol what cannot be captured with words.

You see, practical and sensible as it was, building tents would have been all wrong. The cloud eventually descends to protect them, but not before they see and survive what they see, as if God has made a way at last for people to handle fire. In his day, Moses had to hide in the cleft of a rock when God’s glory passed by. Peter, James, and John has been walking side by side with Jesus for months and it is not until now that they realize how precarious that might have been. The tabernacle-building people of God standing bare—not so much as a tent fold or even a fig leaf to hide their humanness and yet they are not consumed. James and John are too bewildered to move, but Peter thinks he knows what to do. He’s just about to scavenge the mountainside for sticks and leaves for a makeshift lean-to at the very least, until the very voice of God silences him. There on that mountainside, Peter’s impulse to act is stilled and his instinct to find some shelter is challenged; God’s voice begs him listen. A new communion between God and humanity has been opened, and the scurrying, hurrying, bustling Peter is brought to a halt. The loquacious disciple learns to listen. Something so magnificent as the outpouring of heaven is worthy of nothing less than our stillness.

No one else would really notice until later, at the Resurrection, that God had collided with the world in this awesome way. But Peter, James, and John have a sneak preview to carry in their hearts through the terrible season of suffering that is to follow. They walk down the mountain as if in a daze—how odd to think that the heavens and the earth have been turned upside down and altered forever, yet The Change remains imperceptible to the average passerby. The disciples have the urge to shout out an announcement to everyone they meet: “It’s all different now!! By God, it’s all different.” But Jesus tells them to keep silent for now, which is probably just as well, because how could they ever explain what happened?

In the days to come, they will start to doubt if it really even happened at all. That strange moment on the mountainside will feel like a dream. But even in the darkness, Peter feels certain there is still a glare in his eye, leftover from the Shining of God.