Up until the age of seven my dad was a minister. We lived in Chillicothe, Illinois, just outside the bustling metropolis of Peoria. Lot of farmland and Caterpillar heavy equipment. Nice small town life, lazy walks with my mom to BB’s diner for lunch on a spring day, watching my dad play softball in the humid evenings at Shore Acres Park.
It was a great life.
We lived in the parsonage, which sat atop the church’s sanctuary in our basement. Which was handy for my dad, and I suspect a little too “handy” for my mom at times. Difficult to get a good work/life balance when you live over headquarters. I liked it, though. It was home.
The parsonage/church was on a 3 acre plot, with a half acre garden in the back that my dad used as a supplement to his salary, growing fruits and vegetables that my mom cooked, canned, and froze. On the west side of the building sat a gravel parking lot, bordered by old railroad ties, which led to steps going down to the church entrance. My brother Daren and I spent most of our days outside roaming around those 3 acres, chasing bumblebees the size of small dogs through the clover, playing trucks in the sandbox some of the men at the church built for us, or running feverishly to keep the baseball out the garden after errant throws. There was Vacation Bible School, sword drills, baptisms in a rented horse trough, and a big tent revival amongst the clover on the other side of the parking lot. I loved being a preacher’s kid.
When I describe it, it sounds idyllic, I know. And by and large, it was. I mean, I got bee stings and the Chicken pox, but those seemed like small tradeoffs for a childhood that felt so secure, protected from the larger world, which I was somehow aware existed, but from which I felt protected.
Looking back on it, that safety and security was an important thing, coming as it did in the midst of the turbulent 1960s, when the world itself seemed to be going through a tectonic transformation that was seen as necessary and exciting by the generation immediately preceding mine, but which I suspect felt vaguely threatening and uncertain by everybody else.
Think about it, a lot happened in the first few years of my life. The height of the Civil Rights movement, followed by the assassination deaths of two of its biggest leaders, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, and one of the Civil Rights emerging supporters, Bobby Kennedy. Viet Nam was at its bloodiest, prompting many to question their casual trust that the government knew what it was doing. Riots in the cities and riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago locked the nation in dread of what was coming next—and who it was coming for.
The psychedelic generation celebrated new heights of consciousness and new lows in physical hygiene. We landed a man on the moon, and were introduced to Charles Manson, and the horrifying prospect of crazed hippies wandering about in the dark of night, breaking in on the unsuspecting and butchering them in their sleep.
Even as young as I was, I felt it somehow—a vague sense that politically and culturally things were very much up in the air. Who knew what was going to happen?
Which made my quiet childhood that much more precious. I had the feeling that I lived in a safe place, watched over by competent people. We had a church in our basement, for crying out loud. I couldn’t have felt much safer if Batman were our next door neighbor, and Sheriff Matt Dillon roamed the perimeter.
But then one day, my mom and dad sat my brother and I down, and told us we were going to move, and my dad was going to take a job managing a Zondervan Family Bookstore in the newly built Scottsdale Mall in South Bend, Indiana.
So, to sum up: We had to leave the safe confines of our home/church in bucolic Chillicothe, my dad wasn’t going to be a minister any more, and I would be thrust into an unknown world in a different state, far from the safe place I’d counted on to act as a hedge against the chaos of a world unsure of what lay ahead for any of us.
I have to believe Peter, James, and John in our Gospel this morning would have understood my trepidation. But before I get into that, let me step back a moment and set the stage a bit. Our text is the story of the Transfiguration, that episode in Jesus’ ministry when he and a handful of his disciples trudge up a high mountain, so that Jesus can pray. In the midst of it all, Jesus’ clothes start glowing a blazing white, and all of a sudden long-dead Jewish prophets, Moses and Elijah, show up and start having a committee meeting right there in the open.
The disciples “were terrified,” Mark tells us. Because, of course they were. Not every day this side of Haight-Ashbury you see something as bizarre as that.
But then, Mark says, “a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’”
Now, I don’t know about you, but if I’m Peter, James, and John, I’ve got that whole Shaggy and Scooby Doo thing going on, where they see the Snow Beast, and their legs start cartwheeling in a circle, as they scan their surroundings looking for the nearest exit.
But somehow in the midst of the terror, Peter says something that appears completely out of character for the harrowing scene they find themselves in: “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
Why is it “good for us to be here?” The whole scene looks like it’s ripped from a mystic’s fever dream.
In order to know why Peter might have been motivated to set up tents at Pink Floyd night at the Lazerium, we need to know what’s happening before and after Jesus and the three amigos take their mountain hike.
Just prior to our text for this morning, Mark has Jesus in a grim discussion with his disciples about what’s coming next in their barnstorming tour of the Palestinian outback: “Then [Jesus] began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priest, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (8:31).
Do you remember what comes next, after Jesus’ little burst of sunshine? Peter takes him aside and says that under no circumstances is he going to let that happen to Jesus. To which Jesus replies, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things? (8:32–33).
Ok, that’s all pretty bracing news to the disciples—that their beloved leader is about to be executed by the state. I mean, yikes! Right?
But, I suspect it’s what comes next that really spooks them: “‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” (8:34-36).
Um, that sounds a bit harsh. Next thing we hear, Jesus is taking Peter, James, and John on a little excursion up the mountain, which is where we begin our story this morning.
You can imagine that the whole way up the mountain trail the three disciples have Jesus’ words rattling around in their heads: “You want to follow me, you can expect the same treatment I’m pretty sure I’m headed for—a humiliating and painful death at the hands of the oppressors of our land. Oh, and you’ll probably die alone, abandoned by everyone you love.”
Then they get to the top of the mountain, see this great light show, and are in the presence of Jesus, two revered prophets, and surrounded by the voice of God. They have a sneaking suspicion about what lies in wait for them when they leave that mountain top, and it isn’t going to be fun for anyone.
With the uncertainty Jesus has just laid out for them about picking up their crosses and dying as enemies of the state, Peter sees the ancient near Eastern version of the Justice League all wearing their technicolor dream coats, and he says, “You know, all things considered, this seems like a swell place to be. Why don’t we pitch a few tents and stay right here. We could make them nice—like Hermione Granger nice, everything right here. No need to go getting all eager about leaving this place, and heading out into a dangerous world. Why not just stay here? Really Jesus, if it’s all the same to you, we’re good right where we are.”
I totally get why the disciples would rather just watch Netflix and chill than head down that mountain into an untenable political environment that will soon cost Jesus everything.
My friend, Sandhya Jha, who works on the West Coast at the Oakland Peace Center, shared a note yesterday from an immigration attorney across the bay in San Francisco. It seems the attorney was accompanying his client to an asylum hearing. Seeking asylum, if you didn’t know, is a process the United States has traditionally used to protect immigrants fleeing violence and persecution in their own countries, immigrants who, if they return, are in danger of becoming political prisoners, or even being killed.
An asylum hearing is usually granted after a 2.5 to 3 year wait—by which time, any visitors visas have almost certainly expired, and the person is in the country without documentation. But everyone’s always known that because the asylum process takes time, the undocumented status is overlooked while the asylum seeker awaits a ruling from the judge. It’s designed to be, as the attorney pointed out, non-adversarial, because you don’t want people to be afraid of the process if they need it for protection.
Well, in this case, the attorney at the asylum hearing, heard the case and promised a ruling in the next couple of weeks. Standard operating procedure. Typically, the asylum seekers return to their lives in anticipation of a ruling from the judge, unconcerned about being snatched up in an immigration raid.
But in this case, the asylum seeker from Sudan was met by ICE agents just outside the courtroom and immediately taken into custody, to await a deportation hearing—the asylum status now superseded by deportation proceedings. The attorney said he has never in all his years practicing immigration law seen this level of aggressiveness from Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The man has a young daughter born here who is a citizen. His wife and his brothers all have green cards. He’s never been convicted of a crime in the U.S., and if he’s deported, he faces certain political persecution.
That’s the world we live in right now. Scary times, an uncertain future faces all of us as social, legal, and political norms are being upended daily.
I suspect that’s why many people want to stick close by their church at this alarming point in our history. The Dreamers and those living under DACA continue to have their futures stolen from them by a government that sees them not as people, but as leverage in political games. Women who live with abusive spouses see that such abuse is tolerated in our culture—all the way up to the White House—as long as there’s no photographic evidence. But in the case of young African American men abused by law enforcement, even photographic (or videographic) evidence isn’t enough to establish guilt.
The nuclear countdown clock ticks closer to midnight. The planet warms at an alarming rate. The Stock Market, after its meteoric rise over the past year and a half apparently came up too quickly, and is right now suffering the bends, as it plummets back downward.
And I come to church and think, “It is good for us to be here”—especially when here feels at least marginally safer than out there. We could just stay here on the mountaintop, pitch a few tents, and ride out the storm while the rest of the world tears itself apart.
But the problem is, by the time we get the tents put up, Jesus has already headed back down the mountain into the chaotic mess that awaits him below. So, it's no longer a good thing for us to be good in here—because Jesus is headed out there.
Why does he leave—when it’s safer to just camp out here?
Jesus goes down the mountain into the valley of the shadow of Lent, because that’s where his presence is needed most. That’s where the last, the least, and the lost scramble to survive. Down there.
I suspect he goes down there because he’s heard the voice of a Sudanese man torn by the power of the state from his wife and child, and is being forced back into the meat grinder he thought he was leaving behind.
Jesus heads down there because that’s where the action is, where the tempest toss’d live in fear of the night. Down there.
And if we’re going to call ourselves by his name, even though it is good for us to be here , we need to follow him down there too.