March 10, 2019
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
“When you find yourself lost, go back to the last place you knew where you were, what you were doing, and start from there.”
It’s advice that has echoed through my mind for years since the first time I heard it. It’s a quote from the book “Blood Done Signed my Name,” by Timothy B. Tyson. He writes about the importance of this advice for life in his haunting book on the race motivated murder of a Black man in the middle of the day in his hometown of Oxford, North Carolina. He tells the story of his father, who was serving as the pastor of the all White Methodist Church. As protests erupted, as the Klan tried to strike terror, his Father pushed the town to face it’s racist past, and grapple with the present realities of white supremacy in the Vietnam era of the south. Tyson remembers the overwhelming sense of destiny, and being lost, all at the same time.
When you find yourself lost, go back to the last place you know where you were, what you were doing, and start from there.
I first heard Tyson at a lecture in Seminary, and his story felt so far away, across distances of time and culture. He was talking about the past, and while he mentioned struggles for racial and social justice today, it felt removed from my realities I was experiencing as a Seminarian. My biggest concerns at that point in my life were around finding a job after I graduated and the ups and downs of dating in central New Jersey. The wicked problems of injustice and oppression felt far off, and I had a naive trust that the Church would stand on the right side of history, given the chance, even when so much of our past has been filled with just trying to get by with our heads down.
It’s not that there wasn’t room for the cause of justice to grow, but my world was smaller then, and I didn’t really see what I could do. But after Tyson’s lecture, slowly at first, I found myself being invited into rooms and experiences where I was aware of the everyday struggles my classmates of color were facing every day, of the concerns and fears and isolation that being a part of a White institution presented them. As the Black Lives Matter movement emerged, as we learned about hate crimes directed at our Muslim neighbors just down the road, after racist incidents on campus, I found myself wondering “Where is the path forward?”
Now, here in Towson in 2019, the wisdom I heard all those years ago from the son of a preacher man from Oxford, North Carolina, rings in my ears.
When you’re on your own hiking and exploring, sometimes you get lost. And when you are on your own, you’re going to need to get yourself home somehow, or at least get yourself found by someone who can show you the way. And so the advice of tracing your steps until you recognize where you are can be a lifesaver.
This week, I’ve found myself feeling a little lost at times. Not on the trails, but when I consider the magnitude of the calling we are answering as a community. This week, when we began to gather folks for house meetings to address hate crimes in Baltimore County, I found myself wondering “How did I end up here?” Tyson’s words echoed as I set up a meal, put the chairs out in a circle in the library, and waited.
The Disciples know all too well the experience of wondering “how did I end up here?” In the gospels. They find themselves in rooms and out in public, unsure of what to do, or how they got there. In our passage this morning, Jesus takes Peter and James, and his brother John and leads them up a high mountain. And suddenly, they find themselves in the presence of the giants of their tradition, the founders of their faith and way of life. And their response is to try to find their way back to some way of knowing who they are, and what they’re supposed to do, and where in the drama of God’s relationship with humanity they are. So who can blame Peter, who knows his tradition well, for offering to build them Booths, in line with the liturgical celebrations of the time? When you find yourself lost, you go back to what you know you’re supposed to do, right? That’s what tradition can provide for us; a way to respond, grounded in the wisdom of those who have walked the way before. But the flip side of the Hebrew tradition, that Moses and Elijah know all too well, is that when you’re following the Living God, there are often moments when you are called to step into the unknown, beyond what has been. In these moments, the tradition is a starting point, a grounding, and less of a map of the way forward. Instead of being able to read what you’re supposed to do, by recreating the past, you’re instead invited to listen to the one leading you through the wilderness. So when Peter tries to place what is happening in the traditions of the past, he’s met with the voice of God, telling Peter and his friends, “Hey, listen to Jesus. He’s got this. DO as he says.” And there Response is so honest; they are terrified. And I would be terrified too; this is uncharted territory, outside of their structures of meaning making. This is an unknown land they are being called into, and there is no telling where Jesus will lead them.
This week, I’ve been struck by how important it is to acknowledge that sometimes we won’t know the way forward. Sometimes, in the muck, the only way forward, the only way home, is to find yourself, not home by the path that has led you to where you are, but by being found by someone else, someone who can lead the way to a new destination, a new home.
I found myself this week needing guidance on how to get to where God is calling us as a community. I found myself thinking of the best moments of tradition working for justice in the world, while realizing we were going to have to build something new. While I knew how we would find the path, through community organizing and listening, through building relationships and identifying overlapping self interest, through building power to be able to get things done, and being accountable to the community we organize, I found myself wondering, “What if we don’t hear a way forward?” The past few weeks, it’s been clear that God is up to something, and my prayer has been, Lord, send your Beloveds so that we can listen. We can’t do this on our own.”
So, starting this past Wednesday, I began meeting with our growing coalition of community members who want to be a part of addressing the increase of hate crimes and hate groups in Baltimore County, and how to respond. It’s a momentous task; how do you address hatred and the threat of violence against minority communities, from Muslim Mosques to Jewish Shools, to LGBTQ+ affirming places of worship, to hatred expressed towards Immigrants and Refugees? It’s felt like being taken up to a high mountain, one shrouded in clouds, and not being able to find the path down into the promised land we are called to build.
And yet, I remembered the traditions of the Living God, and of Community Organizing, and prepared myself to listen. And every time this week, meeting in our library, a moment would emerge when a would quietly ring out with an invitation to listen to where Jesus is leading, to what is possible if we trust in the Presence of the Beloved one in our midst.
Meeting with Rabbi Nina Cardin, or Dr. Chaudry, the Maryland Director of the Committee for American-Islamic Relations, with folks from this congregation and others, a new way forward is beginning to emerge ahead of our meeting with the County Executive.
Reading and meditating on this scripture passage this week, with the help of one of my colleagues in Philadelphia, she reminded me that Jesus sees how overwhelmed and afraid his Disciples are to find themselves where they are, and what they are experiencing, and anxious about what comes next, as they start their journey into Jerusalem and towards the cross. Jesus does something so human, so personal and grounding, that I had never noticed in this passage before; Jesus touches the disciples. It’s a touch to tell them, “Hey, remember me? I am with you. You’re not in this alone.” And I imagine that I’m not the only one who needs to be reminded of that now and again, every day in fact, as I try to follow Jesus.
Beloved, we are walking on uncharted ground for this little Church in the woods, going out into the public eye, creating new relationships and leading actions in our county, moving our world from how it is, to how it should be, through community organizing and action. It can feel overwhelming, I know. There are going to be times that we feel like we should shrink back, and return to the traditions and ways we have been in the past, where we felt firm in our mastery of how to be Church, how to engage in mission, with no one seeing what we are up to. But I want to invite you to get to know some of the Beloved People, the bringers of Justice and transformation in our communities, with whom God is well pleased, who are living out our values and Christian Tradition in ways we couldn’t even begin to dream of.
This is what building public relationships is about; realizing we are going to walk into rooms with the County Executive, with powerful leaders, and realize, oh, right, I’m not here alone; I’ve got a coalition of people surrounding me who I know deeply, who I’ve had meals with, laughed with their children, heard their stories. It’s going to feel new, but something beautiful can be possible, the next step in what God is calling forth from us in this place, in this time, to tackle the cruel evils of this world, and to strengthen the beacons of hope and light in our midst.
And when we find ourselves lost, instead of trying to retreat back to where we have been, let us remember that we walk this new road with the one who is the way, the truth, and the life, the one who guides his Disciples to peace and wholeness and liberation for all, the one who calls us each Beloved, the one whose hand even now reaches for our shoulder to invite us to get up and follow when we are afraid.
In the Name of the Living God of us all, Amen.