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The Long Way Around
The Reverend Matt Gaventa
February 11, 2018
A reading from the Gospel of Mark:
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
Well, I’ve been here close to a year now, so I figure it’s time I start talking about a real sacred cow, by which, of course, I mean barbecue. This town cares a lot about barbecue. You may have noticed. And I have had some great barbecue since I’ve been here. I’ve had some great brisket since I’ve been here — as a child I was taught that barbecue meant pork and I now consider myself fully converted. But the best barbecue I’ve had in town, as much as it pains me to say it, as much as I wish I could pick some obscure hole-in-the-wall or some little joint that nobody’s ever heard of, the best barbecue I’ve had in Austin was at the place everybody goes, at least when they’re feeling a little desperate, namely, of course, Franklin Barbecue, nationally famous, for the brisket, and for the line. And yes, I waited in the line.
I did it once. Before we moved here, actually, a few years ago, when I was in town for something else altogether, and I had a morning to myself one November day, and I had a stack of books, and it was nice enough outside, and I thought, well, I could read these books anywhere, I may as well read them in line at Franklin Barbecue, that place I’d heard about only in legend. The brisket was legendary, and the line, also, was legendary — they smoke all night, and then the start serving around early lunchtime, and they serve till it’s gone, which usually doesn’t get past about 1:00 or so, so folks wait in line. For hours. When I did it they had already moved from the old trailer into the restaurant home over on East 11th, and the internet told me that on that particular Thursday morning in November I should probably get there by about 7:00, if I was serious. And so I did. I took some books, and I sat in line.
When I got there, I was probably one hundred yards back into a line that grew steadily over the course of the morning. There was never any doubt that I would get to have the lunch of my choice; such was the rewards for having gotten up as early as I did. But there were also consequences. I was not fully prepared. If you go, bring a folding chair. Bring some snacks. Bring some water. I sat on the ground, my back against a metal post, for the better part of three or four hours, reading books, and waiting. There was discomfort. But there was also grace. Eventually, I struck up a conversation with the couple in front of me, and the guy in front of them, and over the course of the final hour or so we became best friends, such that when the doors opened, and when we made our way inside, and when we finally ordered, each of us enough lunch to feed a small army, we all sat down together, one table, one meal.
And it was without a doubt, without hesitation, without equivocation, the best barbecue I have ever had. It tasted like heaven. It was perfect, in every way, but of course it needed to be. Because we had been there for half the day. And because I had stood in line for half the day it pretty much had to be the best meal I’d ever had, and it did not disappoint. And while I have not been back to Franklin — though if any of you need to make a morning-long pastoral appointment with me I’m sure we can work something out — I have not been back, but I have had other delicious brisket in this town, but the truth is that it can’t be as good if you don’t stand in line. I know every once in a while you can get Franklin at some catered event, but I’m not interested. For me, standing in the line made the meal. It created anticipation. It created community. It created fellowship. It opened us to the delicacy at hand; after all, brisket is slow work. Patience is required. And the line takes patience. And the line makes the food better.
Good things come to those who wait. But the Gospel story for this Transfiguration Sunday does not find the disciples in a patient frame of mind. Peter, James, and John have been following Jesus diligently for about nine chapters now, and things have been moving along pretty quickly. Mark tells an efficient story, and there’s a rapidity to it all; famously, stories in Mark always begin with Jesus doing something immediately; immediately, they went up to Galilee; immediately, they went down to the Capernaum; immediately, they got up and left. Everything in Mark happens immediately, over and over and over again and I think the disciples get a little used to quick results and instant gratification. And then we come to today’s reading, and it starts Six Days Later. Which doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a lot longer than immediately, and it’s a hint that this story is going to take some patience.
At first, though, the story reads like one more quick fix. Six Days later, Peter and James and John follow Jesus up the mountain, and he is transfigured; they’re seeing him for what he really is, some angelic form, some revelation of the nature of God, and then Elijah and Moses show up, and for early Jewish followers of Jesus this is basically the Messianic trifecta, all the figures of Israel’s hope gathered into one place just presumably as the fullness of time anticipates; I mean, this is the kingdom, right here, it’s done, it’s ready, just like that, and Peter is ready with the quick fix. I mean, we’ve made it. This is the Promised Land. This is what we’ve been waiting for. This is what we’ve been working for. This is the day that the Lord has made. Let’s build some houses. Let’s make three dwellings, one for each of you, one for Moses, one for Elijah, one for Jesus. I have never quite understood where Peter himself plans to live in this arrangement but I’m sure he’s happy to sleep outside if it means that their work is done and God’s victory won.
But it’s not that easy. As soon as Peter announces his real estate plan, the scene’s over; God’s voice booms in; this is my son, the beloved, listen to him, a little reprise of what we heard at Jesus’s baptism, and all of a sudden Moses and Elijah are gone, and all that’s left is to come down the mountain. And then on the way down, Jesus lays the worst part on them, he orders them not to tell anyone about what they had seen until he has risen from the dead. Which is to say not only did they not get to stay in that kingdom place, they can’t even talk about that kingdom place, that kingdom place is now further away than ever and just half a minute ago they could reach out and touch it. But of course that’s the point. It was never going to be easy. It was supposed to be hard. Not two paragraphs before today’s story Jesus tells the disciples to take up their cross and follow him; this isn’t supposed to be easy. It’s supposed to be the hard work. It’s supposed to be the hard road. It’s supposed to be the long line. It makes food taste better.
I wish I could tell you different. I wish I could make this easier. I wish we could walk up the mountain and Moses and Elijah would show up and we could just hang out and know the work would be over. But you know this Christian life isn’t about easy answers. This Christian discipleship isn’t about easy answers. Even our task for today, transfiguration isn’t about easy answers. It’s about the journey just starting. It’s about the hard work left to be done. After all, we gather here today about halfway through Mark’s Gospel, and about halfway between the manger and the cross; next week will be the first Sunday of Lent, and we, like these unwitting disciples, we will be bound towards Jerusalem, towards the broken bread, the broken cup, the broken body, and the broken grave. It gets harder from here. It’s supposed to.
Especially perhaps this Lent. As hopefully you know by now, next Sunday, on the first Sunday of Lent, here at UPC we will begin a season-long conversation about racial reconciliation and racial justice. Last week John did a wonderful job articulating why this is the work we have to do; why churches have to be part of the ongoing work of racial reconciliation; why conversations about diversity and difference and equality and justice absolutely belong within these walls and within the work of our discipleship. But of course there are easy ways to do it, and there are hard ways. And I promise you, the hard way tastes better, in the end.
When I was growing up, we lived for a few years in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia, in DeKalb County, which was at the time still undergoing federally-mandated busing in order to integrate its schools. One of the consequences of that mandated busing was the creation of a series of county-wide magnet schools, one of which I had the pleasure of attending for most of middle school. But of course the limit of federally-mandated busing is that it can make a diverse classroom but it can’t make a diverse bus; my bus was still a bus full of kids from rich white suburbs and of course you become friends with the kids you ride the bus with especially when it’s a long bus-ride halfway across the Atlanta metroplex at rush hour. And then you get in a classroom and you sit with your friends. Your bus friends. And so our integrated school was less the post-racial utopia than it was supposed to be: all the white kids on one side, all the black kids on the other, no federal judge there to assign seats.
Except every once in a while. Every once in a while, because our school was a bit of a test balloon, every once in a while some school board official or some county politician would come through for the tour. As a sixth-grader I’m not sure I fully internalized all of the politics of these moments; as an adult now I can only imagine all the challenges involved; but it all came out on tour days, because on tour days, as whatever well-dressed higher-up was making the hallway rounds, some administrative aide would come into our classroom and give our teacher the heads-up, and then we’d get the instructions. Hey, kids, could you, just a for a few minutes, could you get up and kind of integrate yourselves? You know, mix the seating around for a few minutes? Let’s get that nice happy diverse photo opportunity ready to go. Forget the segregated classroom you used to be and normally are. Forget the segregated buses you came on and will ride home. Forget the segregated neighborhoods you live in. Forget the long fractured violent racial history that made that city what it was and is. Just, for a second, you know, mix yourselves around.
It worked, of course. For a second. For a second, some county administrator would come into the classroom and look around and I could see the relief in his eye, something like, “Well, that was easy.” And then the visit would end, and then the class would end, and we’d get back on our white bus, and we’d drive back home to our white neighborhood, and the next day we’d come back to our white seats again. And nothing would have changed. And I think we can do better. I think we have to do better. I think we as a citizens of this city and of this country have to do better. I think we as disciples in this congregation and of this Christ have to do better. But it’s not going to be easy. It can’t be easy. We have to avoid easy. It has to be hard. It has to feel a little painful. It has to feel a little uncomfortable. It has to ask questions of us that we may not want to answer. If an easy answer to racial justice in America was going to work, it would have worked by now. Instead, we have to pick the long line.
In his book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, Donald Miller remembers a journey with friends to Peru, to hike the Inca Trail that leads through the mountains to Machu Picchu, a hike that begins in the Sacred Valley, along a river that runs between the peaks on both sides. Miller had trained for some months for this journey, a hike that would take several days of hard mountain work, but as their guide began to explain the trip to them, he pointed out that it didn’t really have to be that hard. Actually, there’s trail that runs along this river, he said; the river was the old commercial entrance to Machu Picchu, and if you stay along the river, you can reach the old city in about six hours or so. But if you wanted the pilgrimage, the ancient emperor had made the trail to go uphill, away from the valley, up the steep slopes of the mountains, into the snow and the ice, over and around down and back again, four days of technical, exhausting, demanding, back-breaking, body-wrecking work.
“Why would the Incas make people take the long route,” one of Donald’s friends asks. “Because the emperor knew,” said the guide, “more painful the journey to Machu Picchu, the more the traveler would appreciate the city, once he [or she] got there.”
So of course they took the long way. Four days, summits nearly to fourteen thousand feet and back down again, until they came to the city. And then they arrived. Miller writes,
“We didn’t hike to the Sun Gate the next morning; we ran. We ran on blistered feet and sore legs. We got there, and it was fogged in, so we sat along the rock, on the ruins, and waited for the fog to burn off. We sat and sang songs. And it was like [our guide] said, because you can take a bus to Machu Picchu; you can take a train and then a bus, and you can hike a mile to the Sun Gate. But the people who took the bus didn’t experience the city as we experienced the city. The pain made the city more beautiful.”
Friends, this is the Gospel for Transfiguration Sunday, here on the precipice of our Lenten journey. Six weeks from today Jesus will enter triumphant into the city with Hosanna shouts. Six weeks from today we will process through this sanctuary with him, bound for the table and the cross the empty grave. And I, for one, hope we can get there the hard way. I hope we can walk the hard road. I hope we can go the long way around. I hope we can do the real work. I hope we can come through those gates with blistered feet and sore legs. I hope we can come to that table with tired bodies and aching bones. Because then we can come to the table of the people of God. Then we can come to the feast of the city of God. Then we can come to the beautiful gracious abundance of the kingdom of God, the kingdom that overflows with bread and wine and milk and honey and goodness and mercy and justice that runs like water.
And the long line will make the feast taste like heaven.