Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Telling stories

Mark 9: 2-9
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
February 15, 2015 – Transfiguration Sunday


            When I check to see how many people have read a post on my blog, I engage in it.  As I anticipate how many notifications are on my Facebook page, I fall prey to it.  When I second guess myself, measure myself against others, and worry that I’m not enough, I foolishly think I’m free of it.  As soon as I charge in where angels fear to tread, I’ve lost my head to it.  When I’m attached to how I appear to others, when I crave approval and attention, it is then that I am wallowing in it.

            It’s one of the original seven deadly sins—something more than pride, which has taken its place.  Vainglory.  It’s not just for the famous and celebrated.  The root of all other vices, vainglory is subtle as it ensnares the human heart.  If we think we are immune, that just might be a sign that we need a booster shot of self-reflection.  

          Why do we need to care about whether or not we are vainglorious? Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, in her book Vainglory: The Forgotten Vice writes, “[The] reason to care about vice is that it keeps us from drawing closer to God (and other people) in love. That love relationship is what we are made for; it’s the cause of our deepest happiness. If we care about that, we will also care about obstacles that damage that relationship and thereby hinder our happiness.”[1]

            Sin is what separates us from God and each other. Nothing can separate God’s love from us, but there’s plenty we can do to put obstacles in the way of us and that love. We think we got it, we can handle this living thing, this loving thing, until we can’t and then we call out for help. Which, when you think about it, is another form of vainglory. We all have the ability to be crazymakers, to create our own suffering and drama, to put ourselves in a froth of our own making.

            Perhaps we haven’t inflated a story to the degree that NBC anchorman Brian Williams did.  We aren’t in the public eye when our persona crumbles to the ground.  We haven’t known the certain shades of limelight that can wreck a complexion, as Holly Golightly once said. But daily we can vacillate between the need to be recognized for our hard work and the anxiety that we haven’t done enough.  Our fluctuating sense of self-importance puts distance between us and God and each other.

            When Jesus ventures up a high mountain with Peter, James, and John, he’s about as close to God as the disciples have even seen him.  His clothes become dazzling, unearthly white:  Tide and Clorox—eat your heart out.  Jesus is joined by two heroes of the faith but also two ordinary men, Moses and Elijah.  Peter, James, and John are so terrified of all this glory that they don’t know what to say, what to do.  So Peter offers to build three dwellings, like mini temples, to keep all that glory on the mountain for a while.

            Then, as in the days of Moses and Mt. Sinai, a cloud overshadows the mountain and from the cloud God speaks: “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him!”  Now you would think that the next words out of the mouth of Jesus would be awe-inspiring, amazing, awash with truth.  Jesus has just been given the best introduction anyone, anywhere could ever have!  Instead he says to his friends to tell no one what they have seen and heard until after the Son of Man rises from the dead.  Don’t tell anyone about this until after the Son of Man comes into his glory, which comes not from the acclaim of human beings but from God.

            Glory comes from God and is for God because God is the only one who knows how to handle it.  It’s too tempting for us human beings to indulge ourselves and our egos in some self-gratification.  Thinking ourselves to be the only intelligent life in the universe, it can seem like it all depends on us.  But the universe was here long before we arrived on the scene and it will go on long after we’re gone, no matter what we do or don’t do.

            There’s a Tibetan Buddhist saying:  “Don’t expect applause”.  Poet Ellen Bass in response wrote these words:

And yet, wouldn’t it be welcome
at the end of each ordinary day?
The audience could be small,
the theater modest. Folding chairs
in a church basement would do.
Just a short earnest burst of applause
that you got up that morning
and, one way or another,
made it through the day.

You soaped up in the steaming
shower, drank your Starbucks
in the car, and let the guy with the
Windex wipe your windshield
during the long red light at Broad Street.
Or maybe you were that guy,
not daring to light up
while you stood there because
everyone’s so down on smoke these days.

Or you kissed your wife
as she hurried out the door, even though
you were pretty sure she was
meeting her lover at the Flamingo Motel,
even though you wanted to grab her
by a hank of her sleek hair.

Maybe your son’s in jail.
Your daughter’s stopped eating.
And your husband’s still dead
this morning, just like he was
yesterday and the day before that.
And yet you put on your shoes
and take a walk, and when a neighbor
says Good morning, you say
Good morning back.

Would a round of applause be amiss?
Even if you weren’t good.
If you yelled at your kid,
poisoned the ants, drank too much
and said that really stupid thing
you promised yourself you wouldn’t say.
Even if you didn’t deserve it.

            If we receive any applause, especially when we didn’t deserve it, that’s what we call grace. While we are here on this earth, God intends us not for glory but for grace. Jesus tells the disciples not to say anything about the glory they have witnessed to spare them the humiliation to come when he is dead. Jesus’ crucifixion will be a hard enough defeat as it is. If the crowds knew the story of Jesus’ bright mountaintop confab with Moses and Elijah, the disciples would be ridiculed into a despair they may not recover from. Jesus’ teaching of love and grace would not be spread by hype, fame, or even rumor but by the changed-forever lives of his disciples; lives changed by loss, defeat, and failure but also by forgiveness, justice for the least of God’s people, and unconditional love.

            So when we’re telling our story, or the church’s story, let’s remember to not leave out the bits where we failed miserably or made shame-faced mistakes or said the really hurtful thing and how, not by our merit but by God’s grace, we’re still here today to tell about it.  In church language we call that redemption.  That’s what we call the power of the cross.  And not only that.  That’s what we call resurrection.  God’s glory.  Amen.


[1] Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, Vainglory: The Forgotten Vice. Grand Rapids, MI: William .B. Eerdmans, 2014.

[2] Ellen Bass, The Human Line.  Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2007.

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