Belief Struggle - thrive UMC Official Blog

Belief Struggle

Last month, we spent our time together talking about wounds and death, and how those seemingly arid topographies were in fact the very fertile soils where healing and resurrection could sprout. In that time, we tried to encourage you all to shine a little flashlight into the often hidden depths of your own lives and pasts.  While, there, we acknowledge how difficult it is to sit and see and experience again the wounds of our pasts, because they can still hurt us. But as we acknowledge, and as we dwell with those wounds, some of which still fester, the promise we receive from the gospel of Jesus is that healing and new life become possible when we become open and invite the presence of Christ to be there too.

This is why we gather each new week: so that we might experience a venue of openness and connection –with ourselves; with one another; and with the very Power that breathes all life and creativity. And in this way, we are encouraged and empowered to live a good and full life, in community, serving.

So today we strive to continue that journey.  And to aid and empower us in that forward momentum –in the preparations for the healing of ourselves and hopefully for the healing of the world as well- we resume again our reading in the gospel of Matthew.  Very quickly: if you haven’t been with us long –of if you could use a little reminder- we’ve been reading in Matthew the story of God setting people free to create a new and richer form of life together.  It’s a story of healing and of liberation.  And Mathew itself is a continuation of a much larger, deeper narrative of the Bible which is directly tied back to the Exodus story, where slaves set free to become their own people.

But more recently we’ve seen that Jesus has been teaching his disciples –his student-followers- and he’s been sending them out to teach, heal, and proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God, as he has. We’ve skipped ahead a few chapters, and today we’re reading the first part of chapter 17.  It says this:

17 Six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and brought them to the top of a very high mountain. He was transformed in front of them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light.

Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Jesus. Peter reacted to all of this by saying to Jesus, “Lord, it’s good that we’re here. If you want, I’ll make three shrines: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

While he was still speaking, look, a bright cloud overshadowed them. A voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son whom I dearly love. I am very pleased with him. Listen to him!” Hearing this, the disciples fell on their faces, filled with awe.

But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Don’t tell anybody about the vision until the Human One[a] is raised from the dead.”


“Don’t tell anyone!” Jesus says.  Don’t tell them about what you’ve seen or what you’ve experienced.  Don’t tell them what you know –or what you think you know. Don’t tell them about… me. It’s something Jesus says a number of times throughout the gospels, and it’s a particularly familiar refrain when we read through the gospel of Mark. And although it’s less frequent in the story from Matthew we still find it’s repetition strange and bewildering.

Because why not, right?

Especially for us long-trained church people, the thing we know we’re supposed to do is tell, right? Tell, share, invite! Bring people to church!  Gather them around the good news of Christianity!  Tell everyone everything you know about Jesus, and all things Jesus-y!  Tell them he’s the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God, the Son of Man, the Savior of the World, the Way, the Truth, the Life!  Tell them he came to establish the Kingdom of God from the throne of a cross, and free them from their sins, and to redeem the cosmos.  Tell them he was born of the virgin Mary and the Holy Spirit, sent to teach, heal, exorcise demons, and pronounce good news, until the day he was murdered by power-hungry political establishments because he was a threat.  Tell them he’s the very incarnation of holy divinity, God enfleshed with mortal skin. Tell them he suffered as a righteous sacrifice to atone for our sins, the eschatological pascal lamb.  Tell them that he rose from that execution sacrifice to grant [at least some] people entry into heaven, and to restore heaven and earth, and to just give us some very practical encouragement to pursue new beginnings in this mortal life.  Tell them he’s the very archetype for what humanity was always hoped to become –the solitary perfect person in all of history; the paragon of faith, hope, and love; the Sinless-one; but that we too, sinners though we are, can become like him, children of the Heavenly inheritance, through baptism, belief, ritual worship, prayer, the sacraments, giving and self-giving, study, growth, community, service, testimony, gratitude, and celebration –in short, through our spiritual and physical participation in grace –a.k.a. love.  Tell them, indeed, we can, and shall, metaphorically and ontologically, become Jesus as we join together in the union of the Church, as Christ’s communal, temporal body on earth, as we celebrate the offering and invitation of Jesus-bread and Jesus-wine, consumed for the sanctification of our flesh and spirits, and for that of the very world and universe itself.  Tell them of the Kingdom he’s ushered in, and which is here but also still becoming in a process of on-going creativity, which is like a vineyard, the soil we walk on, a mustard seed, yeast, treasure, a wedding banquet, and a man leaving on a trip… Tell them about the trinity, and God the Father, and all you know about the Holy Ghost and the power it offers us. Tell them of the great things the Church has done over the last two thousand years, and all the change that’s happened. Tell them everything. 

I’ll be honest, it was a little fun just then, watching all of your eyes go wide for a moment before they gradually start to glaze over, two-by-two.  Here we are at a Christian church, and I simply ran through about a three-minute list of some of the basic orthodox beliefs held by the Christian church today, and by about minute two no doubt half of you were wondering what’s being served at Jethro’s Mother’s Day brunch.

Because, let’s face it: a big, hearty brunch is a whole lot easier to digest than a bunch of church doctrine, isn’t it?  And if you’re swapping elbows with your neighbor right now, or silently weighing Jethro’s against the Machine Shed, or Perkins, or eating at home it’s because some of us here have experienced the blessing of those meals –or at least some delicious form of brunchy foods. We just have to say the words, ‘hot, sizzling bacon,’ and ‘golden-brown waffles drizzled with fresh, pure maple syrup; and juicy tender ham, with a side eggs big enough to fill your open hand.  Or what about an oven warm muffin, twice the size of your fist, layered with crystals of sugar, served with a steaming cup of coffee and a chilled class of fresh-squeezed orange juice? Whew- my mouth is watering at just the thought of it.  The mere mention of the food can be enough to issue an immediate call to action, can’t it? –And all because you’ve tasted it before. You’ve had that experience of eating a good and revitalizing meal. You’ve held the food in your mouth, and rolled it around on your taste buds, and broken it down with your teeth and the secretions of your salivary glands, and with an almost unconscious movement of the tongue, you positioned your chewings just so, to allow you to swallow it.  And finally, through some complicated, mysterious process, some portion of that meal somehow became some small portion of you. It gives you life.  And the best part is that, beyond weighing out exactly what it is you want, once the meal arrives you don’t even have to think about it.

But have you ever gone to a new restaurant in a new city or country, or just a new part of town?  And you go in there, and you realize you have no idea how things at this new place are supposed to go?  You walk in the door and there aren’t any clues about whether you’re supposed to seat yourselves or wait for a hostess.  And maybe there’s more than one dining area, but the one that has the big windows where you’d like to sit is completely empty, and the sign in the corner says ‘reserved’ but you don’t know if that means the whole room or just that table.  Then when you turn to the other patrons to try and catch a hint, they just glare at you over their shoulders before they return their attention to their food and company, mumbling lowly or maybe laughing loudly.  So you might bumble through all of that, but next when the menu arrives, you discover that you don’t recognize anything on it –the dishes are either in another language, or they’re so ‘new-age-fusion’ that you literally can’t imagine what they might be referring to, and there are no descriptions or pictures.  Then, when you finally flag down the waiter to ask about some particular item, you’re told “well, it’s kind of like a pancake and a salad, but not really”… So next you ask for a recommendation and they tell you, ‘oh, everything here is just fantastic, so just pick something.’  Has anyone had an experience like that before?

Or, better yet, have you ever been to a foreign country, and some incredibly charitable host –to whom you’re greatly indebted- invites you to a big, fancy meal, and they want to honor you with a local delicacy; but when the dish arrives you simply can’t recognize it as food.  And the utensils are strange, so you don’t know how to begin?

Peter’s experience in our Bible-reading for today was like that.  When he was with Jesus and James and John on the top of that mountain, he was confronted with an experience he couldn’t swallow.  Suddenly his friend and intimate teacher, Jesus, was transformed before his very eyes.  He clothes started to shine, and his skin was glowing in a very unsettling way.  Then, out of nowhere appear two strangers who turn out to be Moses and Elijah –great liberators from hundreds of years ago.  Moses was the man who led the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt, and Elijah freed the Israelites from bondage to foreign, violent gods.  And Peter suddenly feels compelled to pipe up and go: ‘Oh, this is special! This is a totally big deal!  Oh, hey, I think this is really, truly awesome, I think.  Hey, hey, guys, I know, let’s go build tents –everyone can have their own! Is that a good idea?’  Because, obviously, these guys are going to need a place to sleep, right?


And at that point, a bright cloud becomes apparent over them and this voice comes out of it, which we presume is the voice of God, which says: “This is my son, whom I dearly love.  I am very pleased with him.  Listen to him!” Which, by the way, those are almost the exact same words that came from the clouds when Jesus was baptized, right?

But of course Peter wasn’t around back then to see and hear them spoken the first time.  In fact, Peter wasn’t even Peter back then.  Back then, Peter was called Simon –a pretty ordinary fisherman. So for Peter, that bizarre mountain-top experience was a whole new world for him. It was uncharted territory, where several unimaginable things were happening right there, before his very eyes; and in the midst of it, Peter was way, way out of his element.  But yet, while he finds himself in this new territory, where at least one of the people there had been dead for hundreds of years –and another ascended to heaven in a chariot of fire long ago, Peter response with what he knows, which is very traditional, very ordinary hospitality. ‘Should I build a tent?’  No Pete, dudes back from the dead or from heaven, or wherever, probably don’t need a tent or even a shrine.  So maybe while this whole crazy thing you don’t understand is happening, you should sit down and take it all in first.  Let it be.  And be there.  In the moment.

“Don’t be afraid,” says Jesus.  But also: “don’t tell anyone what you’ve seen…”

It seems like terrible advice coming from Jesus, or maybe some weird, manipulative reverse-psychology; but I think there’s some wisdom in it too, if we’d sit with it for a while and let it teach us.  Sometimes we jump too quickly to the telling part, and we end up missing out on the experience we’re actually having, while we’re having it.  Indeed, when I read this story in the Bible, I can’t help but think of Katryna’s last recital I went to, where all of the parents were sitting rigid the whole time, holding their phones and video recorders above their heads like they’re frozen in the middle of some sick Village People meta-music video, as they tried to capture that unrepeatable moment.

Or I think of the girl on the news several years back who tried to share how the song “Happy” by Ferrel Williams was making her feel as she drove down the road on spring day, by posting the status-update on Facebook, ‘The happy song makes me so happy’ she wrote, followed by a smilie emoticon –just before she fatally crashed her car.

Or I think about when Kristen and I had our first house catch on fire six months after we bought it, and we were tempted to curse God. Maybe we even did a little –I don’t remember.  But at the time, it felt like such a disruptive, awful thing.  But now, looking back on it, we tell the story of how the fire was precisely the time that marked a turning point in our marriage.  It was when we worked through, in very concrete and practical ways, what mattered and what didn’t.  It helped us renew our understanding of what ‘home’ meant, and palpably reaffirmed how absolutely essential having a community is –from neighbors, to co-workers, to church supporters, to insurance agents.  So many people are there for others when and tragedy and horror strike.  But we can’t see, and appreciate, and experience the full depth of those ordinary connections on clear spring days where the weather is perfect and the picnic goes smoothly.  Instead, it’s those moments of disruption and bewilderment, and even terror, that show us—in fleeting glances- what’s really going on in the universe, and how we fit into it.

And this, I think, is the wisdom of Jesus’s words telling us not to tell: that we have to just sit in it first.  We have to live our own experiences –we have to be fully present in our own lives- before a good story will show up.  We have to create a little room in our lives again, for wonder.

Our series for the month of May is called “Don’t Tell Anyone: Sharing Our Struggles.” And the first struggle, the struggle we’re talking about this morning, and naming, is the struggle to believe.  So often in church we emphasize the foundational importance of belief; and we make these long statements and mantras about who Jesus is, and what God’s all about –but we somehow allow that belief to be disconnected from the experiences of our own lives.

But experience is always at the heart of all belief.  Peter, at this point in the story of Matthew, knew who Jesus was –or at least he thought he did.  He was able to correctly call him the Christ, the Messiah –God’s chosen one.  But as soon as he sees yet another side of Jesus, a side that takes him beyond what he previously knew, he starts flailing in the dark.

Today we’re also celebrating Mother’s Day –and this is likely a feeling mothers can relate to: for that first pregnancy, every soon-to-be mother knows that something’s coming –and they even have an abstract idea of what. They know life is about to change, and that it will hurt, and come at a great personal cost.  New life is on its way to being revealed.  But there’s so much unknown –and you can’t really believe it until it happens; and sometimes not even later.

Brothers and sisters, this is the struggle we invite you to dwell in for a moment: the struggle that comes along with belief.  Every once in a while our lives are greatly disrupted, or when some new dimension of reality is revealed to us –but let’s not speak or judge or move on too quickly.  May we have the strength to stay with it.  To live and dwell in a state of unknowing.  Let us dwell in those moments that invite us to see something new and more.  Like a soon-to-be mother waiting in the delivery room, may we not be afraid of the liminal place between pregnancy and birth.  Because that’s were so much of our lives happen.  So let us approach with wonder, and a state of openness, those things we don’t understand and can’t believe.  May we refrain from telling, so that we might be present with the mystery, as it’s in process of being revealed.

Let’s pray.