Transfiguration: All That Glitters is Jesus

The Transfiguration
Mosaic along entryway to the basilica of St. Peter, Vatican City

Matthew 17:1-9

In today’s installment of our telling of the story of Jesus, welcome to the Transfiguration: the holy day that irreverent seminarians everywhere irreverently refer to as Sparkly Jesus Day. It captivates our imaginations. It’s just easy to be drawn in by this idea of Jesus on the mountaintop with his closest disciples, his face shining, his clothes a brilliant white, with Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophet. It is, for the three disciples who came along, a reality-altering experience: this teacher they’ve been following is definitely not just another dude, and only the three of them get to witness this.
We as humans seem to be wired to be attracted to both shiny things and exciting new information, and this, for the disciples present, was both. And before they leave, the disciples are strictly warned not to tell anyone what they had seen until Jesus is risen from the dead.

Can you imagine how awkward they were when they came down the mountain?
Where’d you guys go?

: Peter and John look at each other :

“Oh, just to pray.”

: Thomas looks at James :

“That’s it? Nothing happened? You guys look like you’ve seen, like, a dead person or something.”

: Three disciples remember seeing Moses and Elijah, and James remembers that Elijah technically didn’t die according to the tradition, but Moses was definitely a dead person :

Thomas blinks. “Guys?”

: James snaps out of pondering whether Elijah counts as a dead person :

“Oh, no, no. Nothing happened. Just praying. Lots of praying.”

: Peter, James, and John glance at each other again and stalk away suddenly :

The disciples’ camp really must have been a strange place. Actually makes me feel a lot better about how strange church can be. Awkwardness is a family tradition.

We may have never seen the Son of God revealed, but on some level, we can relate: it’s happened to all of us before. We learn something — a great revelation that changes everything — that no one else knows. And it’s exciting and it’s awesome, and we’re told to keep it a secret. It’s almost excruciating, isn’t it, to keep the news to yourself, especially when what you’ve learned is game-changing. You learn of a new job opportunity for yourself of a loved one, but no one else is allowed to know until later. Or you learn that a boss you once thought was bitter and tough is actually thoughtful and giving, but doesn’t want anyone else to know, lest they lose their hard reputation. A close friend or family member tells you she’s pregnant but doesn’t want anyone to know yet. Keeping these exciting secrets to ourselves can absolutely tie us in knots, especially since we as humans just have a love for shiny, new, exciting information.

Peter and James and John get a front row seat to one of the most amazing displays in human history: the Son of God revealed, in shining light, next to Moses and Elijah.

They really must have thought they were special, you know.

I mean, wouldn’t you if you were one of them? When someone trusts you with information, you feel special. So imagine that x1000. Imagine that Jesus chose you to see him sparkle and to meet Elijah and Moses in the flesh when you didn’t even think that was possible. Jesus did not choose everybody. Just you three. You must be special. Jesus got special plans for you.

How quickly we make things about us.

We’re not just drawn to things that shine; we want to shine.

At first I thought it was just me. But only a few chapters later, right after Jesus flat out tells his disciples that they’re going to Jerusalem where Jesus will die and be raised in a speech that literally starts with “Look, we’re going to Jerusalem where the religious authorities will have me killed,” James and John’s mom comes up to Jesus with her boys by her side.

You can check the text on this. Jesus gets salty. He says, “What do you want?” (Matthew 20:21 NRSV). And she makes her request that her sons sit on his right hand and his left hand when he comes into his kingdom. It’s as if she says, “So you’re going to God — bring my sons to glory with you, because they’re special, you know.” This is when he gives one of his most famous teachings: that the one who wants to be great must be a servant, because Jesus is a servant.

“Don’t you get it?” he seems to say. This isn’t about you being special. It isn’t really about you. I know. Depending on where we are in life, this news may be a relief or it may hit us right in the ego. Personally, I strive for the former and trend towards the latter.

The Church’s story is made up of beloved, beautifully made, diverse people. But the Church’s story isn’t about any one of us. When we celebrate our diversity, we celebrate the creativity of a God who created so many different kinds of humans. We don’t pretend like we’re all the same. We celebrate the widely different cultures that God’s beloved humans create. We look at how different we are and we celebrate a God who is big enough to love us all. The Church’s story is a story about God.

A new trend has cropped up within the mainline church for Ash Wednesday. As articles about it made the rounds, my friends reacted in a few different ways, from enthusiasm to outright horror: Glitter Ash Wednesday.

To portray it fairly, I have to say that it’s not as odd as it sounded to me at first. The idea is that ashes are mixed with glitter, and churches are encouraged to use glitter ash to represent their acceptance of the LGTBQ community. Because some of my friends whom I trust reacted enthusiastically and thought it would be healing for their communities, I affirm the ability of pastors and congregations to make their own decisions around the rites of the church. But I have to admit: with the Transfiguration fresh on my mind, my first thought was:

“Wait. No. All that glitters is Jesus.”

Ash Wednesday, this coming Wednesday, in this grand telling of the story of Jesus that happens every year in the universal Church, is the day that we have to come off of this mountain of the Transfiguration and descend into Lent and the path to the cross. It’s a day when the church year puts our mortality in our faces — well, on our faces. It is a day that we declare that we are all mortal, all fallible, all so, so human — and somehow we are still beloved.

From dust we came, and to dust we shall return.

Not dust and glitter. Just plain, organic, environmentally friendly dust. All of us. All that glitters around here is Jesus.

The problem with Glitter Ash Wednesday, for me, is that the story isn’t about us. Even though it is not the intention, the implication of glitter ash is that churches who use glitter are somehow more welcoming, more fabulous. We aren’t. We all fall short even, maybe especially, when it comes to welcoming others.

Signs of welcome should always be visible, but all that glitters is Jesus. Jesus transfigures us, all of us, into something beautiful — not synthetic glitter, but beautiful, God-made, God-redeemed dust.

The truth is that Peter and James and John were chosen for a reason. They went on to become pillars of the church. But they did it by being servants and, for at least two of them, martyrs. That requires more than feeling special. It requires purpose.

Some of us may crave attention, but we all need a purpose. Psychologist Viktor Frankel once wrote, “The one who has a why can bear any how.” We’re willing to endure all kinds of things for something greater than ourselves: for family, for love, for friends for God. We’re hard-wired to help each other, to work together, to be something greater than we could ever be alone.

The church does that by stressing our common humanity and common creation by God. None of us is better or more special. The neither I nor the council that was installed today is any more special or more called than you are. We’re called in different ways, for sure, but all united in baptism, all called to serve. We celebrate our diversity and differences and a God creative enough to make us all and big enough to love us all. We use our diverse gifts and identities to make the church better. We’re part of something bigger.

All that glitters is Jesus, and Jesus takes our dusty selves and transfigures us into something beautiful together. And that is good news indeed.

So let us rest on the mountaintop with Jesus, around the table, secure in love, not needing to be better than anyone, but blissfully content to be in the presence of Jesus, witness the sparkle, and come back transformed. Amen.

Impractical Jesus

Matthew 5:38-48

During my last of around eight total years in Atlanta, I lived with my best friend Samuel. Many of you met him when he visited this fall — Samuel is an architect, and together we made quite a pair in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward, an old inner city neighborhood famous for being the birthplace of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Samuel and I lived in a three bedroom craftsman house built in the early 1900s. It was nothing glamorous, but because it was ours, it was fabulous. We had decorated it to suit us, with plenty of religious humor hidden everywhere. Samuel shares my belief that one of the best ways to get at serious truths is through a good old fashioned sense of playfulness.

When we displayed our nativity, a Buddha and a border collie figurine sat next to the manger as we accosted friends about whether they could prove the historical absence of either at Christ’s birth. When I noticed the wise men were absent on the day of Epiphany that year, Samuel ran to get them in the other room, explaining that they had taken the Atlanta bus system and that’s why they were late.

Finally, on our refrigerator was a sign boldly declaring:
“I have seen the truth, and it doesn’t make sense.”

This Gospel reading proves the point. It’s highly impractical and it doesn’t make any sense. It is against all of our best instincts of self-protection. Many of us don’t want to admit to having enemies, but we all do. Personally, nationally, internationally — there are people who wish us all ill. On top of that, we are constantly told who our enemies are: by opposing forces in the media and culture, by our leaders, by each other. So what are we to do with the practical fact that we all have enemies — and that what Jesus says about them just doesn’t make any sense?

Of course, just about any good Christian is at least intellectually willing to pray for our enemies, even if we don’t feel like it, but what about the rest of what he says? This stuff seems downright dangerous.

“Do not resist an evildoer”?

And who really wants to actually turn the other cheek when someone smacks them?

Finally, even Jewish law forbids anyone from taking your cloak — your outer garment — in a lawsuit. But here Jesus is, requiring that we hand it over and face the elements.

This doesn’t make any sense, you guys.

Often, I have heard that this is certainly no policy for a group of people to take. I mean, just imagine if, say, our government lived by these rules. We’d be overrun by enemies in a week, right? Because of this sense of practicality, we individualize this text, thinking that it’s only about our personal lives and our personal dealings.

But wait.

I can’t do this alone.

If I’m alone in the world and I give away my outer garment, I will freeze out there. If I give to everyone who begs from me, personally, and I have no support system, it won’t be long before I’m unable to pay my bills or pay for food. If I’m alone in the world and I refuse to resist an evildoer, I could lose everything or even die.

Practicality requires that, if we’re by ourselves in the world, we have to fail at these standards if we’re going to survive. We need other people to even have a hope of doing what Jesus says here.

Thinking about this text this week, I remembered how, at creation, God created Adam, the first human, looked around and said, essentially:

“Huh. It’s not good for the human to be alone.”

We often use this as an image for marriage, since what followed is God creating Eve, Adam’s spouse. But I think that focusing only on marriage when it comes to those first few chapters of Genesis is misguided when we consider the rest of the Bible’s witness, including today’s Gospel text.

Or consider our Old Testament reading for today: farmers in Israel were called to leave the edges of their fields and vineyards for the poor. The rest of the passage is more instruction to the Israelites about how to care for each other and for foreigners in their land, and how to live together in community. Why? Because it is not good for humans to be alone.

Every time I read this Gospel passage, it occurs to me that, practically speaking, the only type of person who is able to follow Jesus’ instructions here and manage to still live anything that resembles a secure life is a well-supported person. In order to turn the other cheek, give away your cloak and your coat, pray for your enemies, or give to anyone who begs from you, it stands to reason that it would work much better if you were secure in every sense of the word: financially, emotionally, spiritually. And in order to find security, humans have, for centuries, relied on each other, because it is not good for humans to be alone.

During the Civil Rights movement, students and others who wished to protest discriminatory policies at restaurants started holding sit-ins at lunch counters. In order to prepare, they trained one another in non-violence. No matter how badly they were talked to, no matter what names they were called, even if they were beaten, the protestors were under strict instructions not to resist. At the protests, crowds gathered around the protestors, shoving them, pouring drinks over their heads, and doing everything they could to rattle them, or better yet, to provoke them and start a fight.

The protestors trained and encouraged each other, with one major rule other than a commitment to non-violence: never go alone.

One person, they reasoned, could easily be dispatched, beaten, even killed, but multiple people enduring abuse would make a statement. After all, how long can you defend beating people who refuse to fight back, when their only crime was being black and sitting down at a restaurant, politely asking to be served? And of course, slowly and over time, it worked. Restaurants reconsidered their policies and integrated. This was, in a very literal sense, quite a case for turning the other cheek.

Of course, despite the success of the protestors, Jesus’ advice is still impractical. Even if we all stick together for security, if those who hate us are tough or determined or depraved enough, even an entire community can be overpowered and overrun without the ability or willingness to defend itself.

What then?

I am reminded of Jesus’ sleeping on the boat in the middle of a storm. The disciples essentially turn to him and say “WAKE UP! Do you want us to die?”

I feel this way about this text. We live in a terrifying world. No matter who you are, who you love, what religion you are, or what you believe politically, there is a group of people out there that absolutely hates people like you. Yes, for some of us, that number is higher than others. Some of us worry only or primarily about international threats or people who are different from us. Others of us, in addition, fear a threat a little closer to home, a threat that looks a lot more like us.

The world is a scary place, and you don’t have to be of any particular political persuasion to admit that that is a true statement.

Given that, it would seem practical that we ignore or at least try to explain away Jesus’ impractical advice. Unfortunately, just like last week, a faithful reading of Jesus’ words requires that we consider the possibility that Jesus actually meant this stuff. And we know he meant it because he practiced what he preached.

When it was Jesus’ life that was on the line, when he gathered with his disciples the night before his death, the Gospel of John gives us an account of what he said to them.

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you,” he says. “I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (John 14:27 NRSV).

“I do not give you peace as the world gives.”

The peace that the world gives is a promise of security. It is a promise that if we arm ourselves, protect ourselves, and earn as much as we can, we will always be safe, always be well fed, always be warm. But this is a false promise, and prosperity is a false idol. History and our own streets are strewn with stories of people who have “done everything right,” worked hard, and defended themselves well and still lost everything, been overrun, and been defeated, killed, or enslaved. As I said a few weeks ago, it’s a lot like what they say on the HBO series Game of Thrones: in the Game of Thrones, the game of prosperity and power and strength, you win or you die.

But Jesus offers us another way. A way out of the simple choice of killing our enemies or being killed by them. But it requires that we stick together and not forsake each other, continually reminding each other of God’s promise, that no matter what happens, God is with us, and even death is not the end.

This is the way of the Civil Rights protestors of the 1960s. This is the way of Martin Luther King, Jr. This is the way of the martyrs of the early church, killed for their faith. It is the way of Jesus. Do not resist an evildoer. Trust that even if you die, that is not the end, because the God you serve is greater even than death.

Nope, the truth doesn’t make any sense.

I’m a highly practical person, and this isn’t practical. It doesn’t make sense to trust in something, or someone, that you can’t actually see. But we can see each other. We can care for each other. We can make our little corner of the world better as we serve our community and tell the story of Jesus in the coming weeks: through the Transfiguration next week, then Lent, then Easter. And we can continue to show up and gather at this table, reminding ourselves of two things: that we have each other and we have the presence of Jesus. And that, despite it being highly impractical, that is all the security we actually need.

No, the truth doesn’t make sense. May we have the faith, love, and security to not make any sense either.

I want to end with the words of our epistle reading for today. Paul writes, “So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours…the world or life or death or the present or the future–all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God” (1 Corinthians 3:21-23 NRSV). Amen.

Do Your Job!

A relatively new Pats fan reflects on the role of grace in Jesus’ high standards.

Julian Edelman makes the greatest catch since Catch came to Catchtown.

Matthew 5:21-37

When I was a freshman in college, I had a coach named Dews. Coach Dews was an old, loud, decorated, grizzled baseball coach, not unlike a Belichick of the softball world. He scared the wits out of me, but like any good coach, he also taught me things not on offer in any classroom.

Once, after several screwups in which I almost definitely looked as terrified as I was, Coach Dews stopped practice, came over, got right in my face, and said, “If you’re afraid to fail, get off my field now.” 

That is when I learned that failure is not the worst thing. Fear is.
Fear ends everything before it’s over.

Now, in case you’ve just woken up from a coma or have been living under a snow-covered rock on the side of Mount Tom, you probably know that our New England Patriots are Super Bowl Champs.

[pause for brief celebratory moment]

I am relatively new to Patriots’ fandom, coming out of none other than Atlanta with no NFL loyalties, having never donned a thread of NFL gear prior to this season (check the record). To be honest, like most Southerners, I was raised to love football — college football. I mean, prior to this, I never really watched the Falcons, in part because it always seemed like they tended to blow it at the last minute.

In moving here, I underwent what other pastors who move here describe: “You move to New England and your church people like the Patriots. And when the Patriots win, your church people are really happy. And you love your church people and you want them to be happy. Then one night you find yourself yelling ‘DO YOUR JOB’ at your TV and then you know they got you.”

That’s probably the nicest thing I yelled at my TV in the first half last Sunday.

And so, after last Sunday’s amazing comeback, I wondered, along with a lot of other folks, what, exactly, Bill Belichick said at halftime.

Nate Solder told reporters sarcastically, “He cast a wizard spell over us that changed everything.”

But Don’ta Hightower confirmed what most Pats fans already knew:

What did Belichick say? “Do your job.”

Taylor Gabriel, a Falcons player, listened during the second quarter as his Atlanta teammates crowed about putting 40 up on the Patriots. He said something pretty important that would resonate later:

“It’s Tom Brady though.”

One of my current jams, none other than Big Sean’s “Bounce Back,” includes the common wisdom: “If you a winner, you know how to bounce back.”

But let’s be real. Not every game, and not every life situation, ends in a miracle comeback. Most don’t. There are times that we can’t win for losing, that we can’t succeed for failing. Most of the time when you fall behind 21-3 at halftime, you don’t come back. When you fail, you have to deal with the consequences, so it’s no wonder many of us come away with a fear of failure, especially when it comes to faith and morality. Doesn’t seem like a lot of second chances are often on offer, and today’s Gospel lesson might lead us to that conclusion too.

Jesus today gives us a barrage of moral instructions, letting us know that he expects us to do our job: to live the kingdom wherever we go. To hold ourselves to an even higher standard than even the Law ever did. Like Jesus said last week: “Your righteousness must exceed the scribes and Pharisees, or you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Now, when we consider that the “kingdom of heaven” applies as much to this life as to the next life — that what Jesus is talking about is arguably more about living the Kingdom here than it is about getting a ticket to heaven — still, those standards are even higher than the toughest coach ever to don a hoodie. These are the kinds of standards that would make almost anyone afraid to fail.

Standards like,

If you’re angry, reconcile before you come to worship.

If you’re angry and you won’t reconcile, you’re basically committing murder.

Don’t objectify people and treat (especially) women with respect, otherwise you’re basically committing adultery.

There is also Jesus’ famous prohibition against divorce.

And finally, Jesus tells us not to swear. I mean, that sounds different than he means it. He doesn’t mean not to say bad words, but instead let our yes be yes and our no be no.

The easy way out of these texts is to say “good thing Jesus paid the price” and move on to the hymn of the day. And that would most certainly be true — Jesus death and resurrection does free us from having to fear failure. But I think there’s more for us here than simply writing off Jesus’ words. He said these things for a reason, and he didn’t follow it up with, “But if you fail; everything will be okay, so don’t worry too much about these high standards.”

Nope. Instead, we get something a lot more like “Do your job.”

But the reality is that we often don’t. Sometimes we lose. And sometimes, it’s not even our fault. Sometimes people won’t reconcile. Sometimes spouses are abusive or unfaithful or both, or sometimes you find that you were just a bad match.

But no matter whose fault it is or isn’t, we fail. We come to worship quite angry with each other or someone else in our lives. We make a big show of making promises that we can’t keep. We objectify people that we find attractive and forget that they’re human, or we allow other people to do the same thing and don’t say anything.

And yes, sometimes, at times through no fault of our own, we or those we love go through the heartbreak of divorce.

On that note, I always refer to Steffen Lösel, my systematic theology professor, the Bavarian Lutheran German national who deftly theologically turned me into a Lutheran. And he did it while preaching on this text about divorce, introducing me to the Lutheran concept of Law and Gospel.

Preaching on this text, he explained that yes, this prohibition on divorce is real. We have to believe, in all of these instances that Jesus named, that he did indeed mean what he said. That is the Law.

But in Christian community, there is also Gospel.

When we witness to a marriage, Dr. Lösel said, we are proclaiming that these two people before us are joined together by God. We say, “What God has joined together, let no one put asunder.”

The difficult part is that no one fully knows the mind of God. We try to discern God’s will. Every couple and every pastor who performs a marriage tries to discern that indeed, this is a match made, as they say, in heaven. At every wedding, we proclaim and hope and believe that God has indeed joined these two souls together for eternity.

But sometimes later we find, painfully, that that isn’t the case. In a perfect world, all we would witness would be marriages are two souls joined together by God forever in mutual love and respect. In a perfect world, we would easily follow the Law and divorce would never be necessary. Unfortunately, we do not live in a perfect world.

If we allow the Law to rule the day — that divorce is not permitted — we keep people trapped in destructive marriages because they are afraid to fail, to break the Law. This should not be. In Christian community, there is Gospel.

The Gospel to counteract the Law is that divorce is never the end of the story. The Gospel is that there is hope and healing, even beyond heartbreak, and it is our job as the community of Jesus to hold people and hear their pain and help them heal.

Do your job, Church.

Our Old Testament lesson for today is Moses’ admonition to the Israelites: “Choose life.” Indeed, so often we are given the choice: we can choose to really live, to love others, to bring the kingdom into our lives here and now. But so often we don’t. We choose death. We choose exclusivity, hatred, fear, war, conflict. Because we are afraid to fail, to not be enough, we fail even more, just as I did that day on the softball field.

We can respond to that in a few ways: we can despair. We can even take the Scriptures as literally as some have throughout history and still today: not allowing divorce, and actually cutting off hands and plucking out eyes as punishment for things like stealing and lust. Given that we’re a modern, educated society, though, a more likely option seems to be just throwing up our hands in despair. You know, like when you fall behind 21-3 at halftime of the Super Bowl.

“It’s Tom Brady though.”

Life isn’t a football game and despite how much Pats fans love him, Tom Brady ain’t Jesus. However.

I think it’s important to remember that even when our best efforts have failed, even when we find ourselves in difficult situations of our own making because we have continually chosen death over life, cursing over blessing, and put ourselves in quite a hole, there’s someone else.

It’s Jesus though. And Jesus never fails to do his job.

In our Corinthians reading, Paul reminds us that, as they say, we are only human after all — but God raises us up, God makes us grow, God helps us bounce back.

People of God, you are loved, you are redeemed, and you are never lost. Your worst failures are never the end. This life is a story about God. And God always wins. You don’t need to fear failure.

And no, God won’t cast a wizard spell over us that changes everything. We will still screw things up, cause pain, come to worship mad, and fail all the time.

It’s Jesus though. And with Jesus, there is always hope.

God brings the growth, God brings us back, snatching life from death every single day.

So don’t be afraid to fail. Bounce back. Keep trying. God will bring the increase, even, perhaps especially, when we screw it up big time.

This is a story about God, after all, and God loves a good comeback.

So get out there. Do your job. Amen.

In Defense of Absurdity

Matthew 5:13-20

I remember noticing very early on in my life how quickly things can turn upside down.

How quickly your football team’s situation can change — like how fast our Auburn Tigers could go from being Alabama’s ugly stepsister to a national contender. Or you know, how another football team could go from having its star quarterback suspended to playing in the Super Bowl.

Or how fast and how drastically the political landscape can change. You may be thinking recently, and you’d be right, but I’m remembering the ’80s and ’90s political landscape of my childhood and adolescence.

I also remember noticing how fast someone’s emotions could change based on new information.

I remember noticing quick and radical change early in my life. I came to expect the unexpected. That, along with some of my parents’ choices in what movies and literature to expose me to, including Bible stories, led me to embrace absurdity as just another form of quick and radical change. One of my favorite movies became Alice in Wonderland, starting a lifelong fascination with the works of Lewis Carroll, which I also talked about two weeks ago. Well, that sermon started me on a kick to renew my childhood passion, and I spent a night this week re-watching Alice Through the Looking Glass, the 2016 movie that was only sort of successful.

These days, we call things absurd if they’re bad, but I remember, very early on, accepting absurdity not as bad, but as neutral, even sometimes chaotically good. Think “Cheshire Cat” — appearing, disappearing, saying vaguely helpful things along with what sounds like complete nonsense. The Cheshire Cat became not only my spirit animal, but my impression of the Holy Spirit.

It also occurred to me early on that I thought Jesus was absurd — in a good way — and that’s what drew me to him. Crazy ideas, crazy stories, like water being turned into wine — the best wine at the wedding at the end of the party. Like Jesus feeding 5,000 dudes and their accompanying women and children with just a couple of loaves and some fish. Like Jesus appearing to us through the ages in bread and wine, body and blood. The absurd claim that in infinite God became an infant, just like all of us once were, and walked and talked on Earth among us. The idea that loving your enemies rather than fearing them is a way to live rather than a fast way to die. The insane idea that even the destruction of a body isn’t the end of it, because this community that we’re connected to witnessed Jesus dying and rising.

All religion deals in absurdities, but sometimes I feel like Jesus almost abuses the privilege. But then, you’re talking to someone who imagines the Holy Spirit as often operating a lot like the Cheshire Cat: showing up singing, telling you to do something absurd, like go to seminary or lead that committee or care for those children or befriend that person.

Even today, in our Gospel passage, Jesus is dealing in absurdities.

“You are the salt of the earth,” he says. But then he says that salt that loses its taste is worthless.

Much has been said of polls these days, but I want a count of how many preachers this week googled “Can salt lose its saltiness.” I know of at least one.

No. It can’t. Turns out that sodium chloride is incredibly stable.

“You are the light of the world,” Jesus continues. “A city that’s built on a hill cannot be hid.”

I immediately imagine folks running around trying to cover their city in a giant tablecloth to hide from an advancing army. Absurd.

Jesus continues, “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket.” Well… no. Lutheran scholar David Lose points out that besides being counterproductive, 10/10 fire marshals agree that putting a fire under a bushel basket runs a high chance of catching your house on fire.

Then, after these absurdities, Jesus says that he has not come to abolish but to fulfill the law, ending with the rather alarming statement that unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.

Then I hear the Cheshire Cat-like Holy Spirit giggle and ask me if I’ve considered that maybe the scribe and Pharisee righteousness bar is low….?

We love to run around talking about hidden lights and unsalty salt, both as a call to action and as an accusation for other churches. But maybe we’re missing the joke. Maybe this whole salt and light and righteousness thing isn’t about what we do, but about who we are.

The film based on a book that I watched the other night, Alice Through the Looking Glass, is in itself about reclaiming one’s identity. Alice in this story has come back from Wonderland and grown up to be a ship’s captain, adventurous and daring, not believing that anything is impossible. However, a series of unfortunate events befall her, and she finds herself extremely financially limited, in danger of losing parts of her deceased father’s estate. She flashes back to words from her childhood: “…sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.

The movie will go on to be about Alice reclaiming the absurd side of herself, the side willing to believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast. When her friend the Mad Hatter explains a grave problem to her, Alice initially doesn’t believe him, telling him that what he believes is impossible. The Hatter’s eyes go wide and he promptly throws Alice out of his house, saying “You’re not you!”

“What do you mean I’m not me?” she cries.

My Alice would believe me!” he says.

Of course, it’s only in believing the impossible, the absurd, that she rediscovers who she really is and saves the day in the process.

And I started thinking that maybe that’s what this whole salt and light and fulfilling the law thing is all about: remembering who we are, and in doing so, believing the impossible: that we are a community bound together by this crazy story and this crazy hope.

Last Sunday, we sang “We Are Called,” and this week, we sang “Gather Us In,” both songs from my ordination and my installation service here, both anthems of our beginning together. I was ordained a year ago last Tuesday after a long struggle with the universal Church over who I was and what I could do. And that struggle finally ended with my ordination and my call here, opening up a new chapter for me and for us together. And so, since it’s been a year, I thought I should reflect on it, because that’s what spiritual leaders do.

A year of being ordained. Of being salt. Of being light. Of being the least in the kingdom, or is it the greatest, or are we all stuck somewhere in the middle? In this wonderland of faith I can rarely remember, other than remembering that position in line isn’t important.

So how does a pastor tend, guide, and lead the church? How does a pastor keep salt salty while also being salt herself? Or make the Church’s light brighter while also being light herself?

Oh come now. That’s absurd.

An outside force is needed if anything is to happen to light’s brightness or salt’s saltiness or our righteousness. One like the Holy Spirit that falls on the unordained and the ordained. One that helps us believe six impossible things before breakfast.

And we have, us, together, believed impossible things. We’ve sometimes even done six impossible things before breakfast… or at least before coffee hour. We’ve remodeled. Gotten involved. Helped each other through tragedy. Freaked out about the news. Discussed and debated the news. Tried new things. We’ve done life together, camped together, dealt with pain and kept looking forward together.

We’ve all shown up when we were eager. We’ve all shown up when we were tired. We’ve all shown up when we were frustrated. But we still showed up.

We’ve become reconciling. We’ve explored new possibilities. We’ve given the Church, and each other, a chance, just one more time.

Now, I think I know myself pretty well. And I’m getting to know you day by day. We don’t continue to show up and do these things because we’re any different than anyone else.

We’re no superheroes; we all put our albs on one arm at a time.

We do this stuff because somehow, maybe in an instant or maybe over time, it’s become what and who we are.

And yes, we’re always free to forget who and whose and what we are. We will fail. We will forget. We will think things are impossible and we won’t believe. Every now and then we might look at each other with all the alarm of the Hatter and exclaim “YOU’RE NOT YOU!”

But we are. We are salt. We are light. We are righteous. We are, together.
Thanks be to God who made us so.

We believe no fewer than six impossible things before coffee hour every Sunday because we’re a bunch of absurd people brought together by the Holy Spirit and somehow, together, we really believe this stuff. Because when you can’t believe, I believe for you, and vice versa. Because somehow, this is who we turned out to be, like Peter and Andrew by the seashore: the kinds of people who leave nets behind and show up and keep showing up.

We might wonder, along with the Mad Hatter at times, “Have I gone mad?”

But may we hear the Holy Spirit’s words in Alice’s response:

“I’m afraid so,” said Alice. “You’re entirely bonkers. But let me tell you a secret: all the best people usually are.”

You’re all entirely bonkers. Amen.