Transfiguration: Christian, Breathe Now

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Selfie Kid and one of the countless memes he generated.

Mark 9:2-9

This isn’t like last year, when when a Patriots Super Bowl win produced a thousand good sports-related sermons.

Yeah, I don’t want to talk about it either.

But there was one moment in the halftime show that caught a lot of people’s attention: selfie kid. As pop star Justin Timberlake climbed up into the stands and danced along with the crowd, lots of people started noticing the one kid who looks to be about 13 or 14 who kept looking at his phone. Everyone else in the stands was dancing like a crazy person on national TV, but that kid: phone.

Finally, when Justin Timberlake got near him, we learned why he’d been messing with his phone — setting up that once in a lifetime selfie with a pop star. (I’d like to note that, for me, this still isn’t a satisfying answer, since most phones allow you to swipe to camera mode with one flick of the wrist.

: demonstrates by taking a selfie :

Anyway.)

This, of course, made Selfie Kid into an instant sensation with everyone using the still of him looking at his phone side by side with screen shot representations of what he might be looking at. My favorite: a Google page with the simple question “Who is Justin Timberlake”.

Selfie Kid captivated the nation for a minute because of the national conversation around, I think, two related things: first, people’s general distraction in looking at their phones during big moments, and second, people wanting to capture big moments rather than just enjoying them.

An episode of the Netflix show Black Mirror takes this concept, as Black Mirror often does, to an extreme in order to show us what’s up. Black Mirror is an intense, often disturbing series that details humanity’s relationship with technology by constantly looking forward to a dystopian future. It takes where technology and our relationship to it are right now and pushes it to an extreme to show us what dystopian future could be someday.

The episode “The Entire History of You” tells of a future where nearly everyone has a chip implanted into their brains that records everything that they see and hear. The chip is called a “grain,” and it can play back your memories either in front of your eyes or on a screen — they call those playbacks “redos.” You can zoom in, zoom out, re-hear what people said to you, and relive big moments in your life. You can replay a redo of an interview for a new job for your friends so that they can relive it with you, give you feedback, or laugh at how awkward you were.

Like just about everything in Black Mirror, your reaction is meant to be “this is horrible — and it came from a really amazing idea!”

What would it be like, we’re meant to wonder, to be able to go back to precious moments in our lives — moments like your first kiss, your wedding, the birth of a child — and relive them in front of our very eyes, or watch them on our computer screens like it was Netflix? Of course, it might be wonderful to relive joyful moments, but what about painful ones? Of course, characters in the show demonstrate how unhealthy such technology can be, too, as they relive, over and over, the most painful moments of their lives, or memories of a person who has died or broken up with them, rendering these characters utterly incapable of living their lives forward as they watch the past happen again and again. (1)

Obviously, the disciples lived long before cameras were a thing and before anyone could conceive of re-living moments, but of course, humans haven’t actually changed all that much in our psyches. People still wanted to capture amazing moments and make them last. And this is when I have to say that Peter was the Selfie Kid of the first century.

Jesus, Mark tells us, has gone up a high mountain with select disciples: just Peter, James, and John. I assume that they assumed that they were going up for prayer time with the mysterious new rabbi. They must have felt special, getting special prayer time with Jesus. They hike up a mountain with the Lord in their tunics — as my friend Joe said this week, “Can you imagine hiking up a mountain without pants?! — and get ready to pray.

Then things turned dramatic when they reach the top of the mountain and all of a sudden Jesus starts actually glowing. Then Moses and Elijah, representing the Law and the Prophets, appear to them too. The disciples are terrified and speechless with the wonder they see all around him.

And then Peter does the most human thing: he tries to capture the moment and make it last. He offers to build houses or shelters for the three men, to make a shrine to this. He assumes that this is it, the moment that must last forever. He’ll build shelters for them and they’ll be able to come to the top of this mountain and visit God and Moses and Elijah any time they want.

But the Revolution, then as now, will not be televised and cannot be captured.

They have to live their lives forward after this.

They can’t come revisit this moment, because moments, even amazing ones, are fleeing.

Mark tells us that Peter is so overcome with the moment that he did not know what to say, so God bails him out and shuts him up at the same time. As Peter is jabbering in stream of consciousness form his instincts about building a shrine, a cloud overshadows them and God speaks: “This is my Son, the Beloved — listen to him!”

Stop trying to capture the moment, Peter, and listen. Just listen. Take all of this in.

Put down the hammer. Put down your phone. Stop dreaming about being able to visit this scene any time you want.

Listen.

You cannot capture this.

You will not pass this way again.

And you’re about to go through times so amazing and difficult that you could not possibly imagine now. So listen! Listen to Jesus.

Of course, they won’t listen. Not really. This little episode in Mark is bookended by Jesus telling about his death and resurrection on one end, and at the end of this passage, Jesus tells them not to tell anyone about this moment — that means no Facebook or Instagram, James — until Jesus is raised from the dead. In short, he told them twice that he’d be resurrected.

But when he’s captured and crucified? They flee.

It would seem that “Listen to him!” fell on pretty deaf ears as the disciples, especially Peter, were distracted by trying to capture the shiny stuff for posterity.

The Good News is that all the disciples’ inattention didn’t stop Christ’s death and resurrection. Despite all our distraction, God still accomplishes the work.

Today, despite all our distraction, despite our inability to move forward, God still gets to us. In real things that can’t be captured — bread, wine, water, words.

In real palms turning to real ashes. Events that we better enjoy, because we cannot relive them, no matter how many photos we take.

Note: this isn’t a call to stop taking photos, at church events or elsewhere. I still will — it’s a good thing, even, for a bunch of reasons, including being able to show other people what we do here.

This is a call to put down our distractions and realize when we are in the presence of God. This is a call to put down our worries and meet God in bread and wine and water and words and pre-Lenten sugary treats and burning palms and other people. It will not happen exactly this way again, and we do not know when the hardest times of our lives are coming, just like they came for the disciples.

This is where we meet Christ, the Beloved — stop for a moment and listen!

One of my favorite poems was written by a teenage slam poet from Chicago named Adam Gottlieb called “Poet, Breathe Now.”

In it, Adam talks about how he’s unable to write a poem, distracted by everything from his life to his dog until finally he hears his dog say to him, “Poet, breathe now. ‘Cause it’s the last thing you’ll ever do for yourself.” Adam’s poem calls the poet to breathe into the moment and listen, and from there, the poet may write.

Over the years I’ve returned over and over to Adam’s poem thinking, “Preacher, Breathe Now,” trying to cut through all of the distraction in my brain and the notifications on my phone to figure out what God is saying to the Church right now, and Adam’s call to breathe is nothing short of a call to stop trying to capture everything and just… listen.

Adam writes,
“[Poet, breathe now, because], when you take a breath the universe rings out like circular beats – 

landing planets are seraphim storms are spit – stars are soulcandles!

and you breathe like chest rebounds even when all hope seems lost, our sounds pound mics like hope-stars like “we’re still here!” — holla!

we make angels of our nightclubs,

bards of our bums,

outlooks of our outcasts and infinity of our sums,

we are the children of empathy, the pathos of slums,

we heal like helios, like cyclical drums

we enlist life from listless and sometimes even get things done.”

And I edited the end of Adam’s poem so that I can leave you with this: 

“Preacher, breathe now because once you start your piece

you can die behind that microphone and death may be breathless,

but the Gospel is deathless so breath, be our savior eternal.

Preachers with your lives, Gospel bearers:

breathe once with me now.

[Inhale… exhale.]

That’s one sermon we all wrote.” Amen.

1. “The Entire History of You,” Black Mirror, Series 1, Episode 3, originally aired in December 2011.
2. Watch Adam’s poem in its entirety here.

One thought on “Transfiguration: Christian, Breathe Now

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