Many of us have spent a good chunk of the weekend with Dr. Robin Meyers, an outspoken progressive and author, and a pastor of one of our own UCC churches in Oklahoma City. It’s been a lively weekend, and a good conversation. And if you see that look in our eye, well, the wheels are spinning this morning.
At Friday night’s keynote lecture, Robin reminded us that, in the early days of the Jesus Movement, candidates for baptism might spend as long as two years preparing for initiation and baptism—into what Robin likes to call “the underground church.” Two years of study and storytelling. Two years of conversation and prayer. And, most importantly, two years of practice. Feeding the hungry and mediating conflict and learning to pray. Praying for enemies. Two years preparing for baptism.
Now Robin’s point, in sharing this with us, had little to do with another fun fact. Instead, he wanted to impress upon us how seriously the Movement took itself, and its vocation in the Roman Empire. They called themselves “Followers of the Way”—“Followers of the Way.” And this following required something of them: something real, something difficult, something costly. Those first generations weren’t looking to pad their membership statistics; they didn’t give a hoot how many belonged. What they were really after was commitment, discipline, passion: something like—the passion of their Teacher. So they’d insist that a seeker, a novice if you will, spend something like two years learning the Way—watching others feed the hungry and house the homeless and welcome the stranger. Watching and learning new ways of meditation and service, soulfulness and joy. Two years learning the Way.
Now Robin was quick to remind us that these “Followers of the Way” were not in the least concerned with doctrine, orthodoxy and creeds. The virgin birth, the resurrection of the body, original sin. Forget it. They were, instead, committed to a radically loving practice, that Way pioneered by a dirt-poor rabbi from the boondocks in Galilee. It’s that Way they spent two years learning, practicing, digesting—before their baptism, their initiation, their coming out party as Christians. Because the Movement took itself seriously, and knew there was a lot at stake in the Roman Empire.
Love wasn’t a Hallmark card—or whatever the equivalent of a Hallmark card might have been in the ancient world—love was a practice, an orientation of the spirit, a Way in the world. So they took it seriously. They learned from the Teacher. From his stories. And they passed the Way along like a precious, holy, sacred jewel. Two years.
The thrust of Robin’s work is that this early church was an “underground” church—something like the old underground railroad in this country. They gathered in hidden homes, marked slyly by the sign of the fish. They told stories there, and ate joyously in remembrance of Jesus. And they perpetuated, passed along his subversive message and subversive practice. The Roman Empire was of course colossal and mean and violent—and not the least bit interested in sharing moral power with a band of Jewish peaceniks and homeless footwashers. So the church kept things “underground” and practiced this kind of subversive faith there.
Now these six weeks of Epiphany—today’s the sixth and last—these six began in early January with our remembering of Jesus’ own baptism in the Jordan. Remember how the heavens open up, and John pulls Jesus out of the river, and there’s this voice: “You are my Beloved, my Son! And I am so delighted in you.” In a sense, the whole season of Epiphany is one extended meditation on what that means: first that Jesus is Beloved of God, God’s delight, God’s pleasure; and second, that so are you. God’s beloved, God’s delight, God’s pleasure. The entire project of the gospel—the subversive project of the gospel—begins in our experience of God’s delight. Knowing that the earth is hallowed ground. Entertaining friends, neighbors, strangers, even enemies as angels unawares. Hearing that Voice that speaks a thousand different languages say: “I am so delighted in you.”
It’s the Delighted People of God that change and heal the world, right? Not the Angry People of God, or the Better-Than-Everybody-Else People of God. It’s the Delighted People of God who show up to cook big feasts for the hungry and lay out the mattresses for the folks who need a place to sleep. It’s the Delighted People of God who march and march and march for marriage equality—and keep marching until the Supreme Court finally does the right thing. And it’s the Delighted People of God who work the late shift, the forgotten shift, at the hospital—binding up the wounds of the kids shot late at night, or the addicts nobody wants to see.
So that’s what Epiphany aims to be in the church: an long, extended meditation on Jesus the Delight of God and what it means for us to be his people.
And so, for all my silliness in slipping this little anointing ritual in during Epiphany, I want us to take baptism, to take delight, to take Jesus’ Way every bit as seriously as those first followers did. I want us to walk out of here on Sunday mornings with some of that subversive pleasure on our skin and in our heart. I want us not to just know who Jesus was back then—but to feel who Jesus is for us now. And I want us to be an “underground” church, the delight of God, beloved of God, in all the places where we go, when we go from here. So we’ve been doing this little anointing ritual, remembering our own baptism just a bit, recalling God’s delight, God’s pleasure. Every week.
And that leads us back to Peter and James and John. And Jesus transfigured—whatever that means—up on the mountain.
You know, it strikes me that all this Love, all this Delight, all this Service—it can be overwhelming at times. It can wear you out. And that seems to be happening here with Peter and James and John. Jesus is a sweet friend to have. And Jesus is a powerful presence for the good. And Jesus teaches this radically inclusive, delightfully generous practice. But sometimes it just wears you out.
But after days of meeting the brokenhearted face to face, after weeks of feeding the hungry and healing the wounded and facing down bigotry over and over and over again—Jesus wakes these three friends early in the morning, and says it’s time for a hike. We’re climbing a mountain today. Are you kidding, Jesus? Can’t we just sleep in, just once?
So they drag themselves out of bed, roll their bags and tie them on their backs. And they follow Jesus up the mountain. Because that’s what you do. Jesus wakes you up, says it’s time to go, you go.
And then, there on the mountain, there’s all this business about Jesus praying, and his appearance, his face changing. There’s this bit about Moses and Elijah showing up in glory and chatting Jesus up, talking about his departure and weird stuff like that. And the story says, the gospel says: “Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep...”
And as it is in so many parts of the gospel, sleepiness seems to be as much a spiritual condition as anything else. Peter and James and John are spiritually tired; they’re not sure they can keep up with Jesus any longer. They’re worn out, wrung dry by his subversive ways and his compassionate ministry and his morning hikes to pray in the hills. And it would be so much easier, so much simpler to pull the covers up in the morning, pull down the shades and just forget it.
And then, in their fatigue, in their weariness, the voice comes again. The voice out of the heavens, the voice from some deep, deep place. And it’s a lot like the voice we heard way back at the beginning of Epiphany, the voice at the River: “This is my Son, my Chosen, my Delight; listen to him!”
Now I think there are two things happening here, two narrative keys for us in making a little sense of the transfiguration. First, it reminds us of Jesus’ baptism. And we need to be reminded. God delights in Jesus. God’s pleasure goes where Jesus goes—as he loves and cares and breaks the broken rules and welcomes everybody in. And you and I? We are God’s delighted people. We are God’s beloved children too. Like Peter, like James, like John, we get tired. And it can all be a little overwhelming. We’re weighed down with sleep. But then you see a whale breaching in the bay. Or you watch your daughter dancing across a stage (as I did last night). Or you hear a great symphony done right. And that voice cries out again: “You are my Beloved. You are my Chosen. You are my Delight. And you are up to the task.”
But there’s a second thing, too. Peter’s sleepiness is a foreshadowing in the gospel. Even as the voice sends us back to the early days, Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, Peter’s fatigue foreshadows his weariness in the garden, those last hours of Jesus’ life. Peter sleeping when Jesus begs him to stay awake, when Jesus needs him most.
Here’s what I’m taking from all this: the looking back to the Jordan and the looking ahead to Gethsemane. I’m seeing an important, affirming reminder that all that we are and all that we do is wrapped in God’s grace. From beginning to end. From the glories of baptism to the hard, sad moments of betrayal. From our first commitments to a new way of life to our very last moments of suffering and loss.
Jesus doesn’t promise Peter a bed of roses, or an easy way of it. And—truth be told—he doesn’t promise this to us either. What he does promise is this: that God’s blessing, God’s love, God’s passion will go with us wherever we go. Into the beautiful waters of baptism and celebration. Up onto the high mountains of exploration and mediation and prayer. And then into the darkening gardens where we suffer and let go at last of all we’ve loved.
You see how different this is from the version of Christianity that says: If you believe in Jesus, everything will turn out right for you. You’ll be successful and beautiful and saved when others aren’t. Instead, this Gospel—Jesus’ Gospel—invites us from Epiphany into Lent, into the real world of suffering and hurt, into the realities of aging and frailty. And Jesus promises us that we will meet God there. Precisely there. In what is real and human and us.
As you may know, I’m a huge fan of poetry. And recently I was given this little volume called “Women in Praise of the Sacred: 43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women.” 43 centuries! I’m loving this book of poems and discovering some new mystics along the way. So often the mystics of other religious traditions shed new light on the deepest truths of my own. And a new favorite of mine is Lal Ded, a 14th century disciple of the Shiva tradition, born in Kashmir.
I’ve learned that Lal Ded was married at the age of 12, neglected by her husband and treated horribly by her mother-in-law. After 12 years, she left her home to become a Shiva disciple, living and celebrating a mystical oneness between God and everything she touched and saw.
I want to finish up with just one short poem by Lal Ded, one that speaks to the awakening we’re talking about this morning, the awakening we know in baptism and continue learning on the Way with Jesus.
Here’s the poem:
To learn the scriptures is easy,
To live them, hard.
To learn the scriptures is easy,
To live them, hard.
The search for the Real
Is no simple matter.
Deep in my looking,
The last words vanished.
Joyous and silent,
The waking that met me there.
As we turn from Epiphany to Ash Wednesday, from Epiphany to Lent, that’s my hope for all of us on the Way with Jesus: that deep in our looking, even the words might vanish; and that joyous and silent, waking will meet us there. Amen.