First Follower

February 11, 2018

Series: February 2018

Category: Faith

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Mark 9:2-9

2 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, 3and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. 4And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 5Then 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.’ 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. 7Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ 8Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

9 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. THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD. THANKS BE TO GOD.

First Follower

          Do you know that saying, “You can’t have your cake and eat it too”?  I never thought that made sense.  Don’t you have to have your cake in order to eat it?  It was resolved for me this year when I learned that the original phrase was, “You can’t eat your cake and have it too.”  Any time the world becomes a little less bewildering I count as a win. 

          I’d like to eat my cake, have it, and eat some more and, while I’m thinking wishfully, I’d like not to gain weight in doing so.  This is how life is—we’d like to have the good without all the accompanying bad would we not?  I’d like to have a little fame and glory without all the scrutiny, much less the sacrifice.  Today’s story of Jesus is one often told exclusively in terms of glory.  Christians call it “The Transfiguration,” when Jesus ascends to the mountaintop is identified with Moses and Elijah, and beams with a blinding heavenly light.  From the clouds comes the pronouncement: “This is my Son, the Beloved” (Mk. 9:7).  It is the second such pronouncement about Jesus in Mark’s Gospel.  Glory.

          What a scene to behold.  Peter, James, and John join Jesus on the mountaintop where they witness his glory firsthand.  This is where we usually leave it, showering Jesus with praise over the pronouncement of his identity and power, not just as God’s son, but as one coronated, chosen to usher in the kingdom and over everything, including death itself on Easter.  Glory Hallelujah. 

          What about when Jesus came down from the mountain?  For that matter, what about all the roads he traveled to climb up it?  Jesus faced plenty of treacherous roads, opposition, mockery, and violence.  He lost relationships, a home, and eventually his life.  It’s good those details weren’t cut out of the gospels just because they are unpleasant.  There is something important, even refreshing, about simply being told the truth in a world where everyone is spinning something.  I went to the doctor for my physical last summer.  As instructed, I brought in a list of little nagging things that were bothering me.  After I shared them my doctor looked at me and said, “You know, once you hit 30, your body just start declining.”  Oh, she went on.  “Think of your life as a dimmer switch and you’re just getting dimmer and dimmer and eventually you’ll go out.” 

          I left the doctor’s office feeling great.  No, I’m not kidding.  In a world that’s always trying to sell us a fountain of youth, to be told the truth, if not tactfully, felt honest and honoring of me.  As a result, I found it surprisingly uplifting.  Wouldn’t you know, the things that were nagging became less of a big deal, less of an aberration of how it was supposed to be, and more of just how it is.  The first step in the spiritual journey is recognizing how it is, how it really is.  Similarly, when I entered the ordination process, my denominational liaison said to me something to the effect of, “You know there’s no glory in this work, only suffering.”  I’ll never forget it, “only suffering.”  On many days, I experience that as hyperbole, but over time I’ve come to appreciate his words.  In a field that can be filled with platitudes, he was trying to level with me, tell me there were going to be real challenges and those challenges shouldn’t be seen as evidence it was the wrong path.  No Christian path, professional or otherwise, is easy.  Jeff Shankle, whose title is youth director, but whose function is far greater, is a marvelous Bible teacher.  I’ve heard him say, “You know every time crowds form around Jesus, wanting to be a part of it, Jesus makes it harder, not easier, but harder for them to follow him.”  I suspect Jesus wanted to dispel any illusions that this was going to be all about glory. 

We simply don’t live on the mountaintop all, or even much, of the time. Rather, we find ourselves making our way down rough trails, uncertain paths, valleys, and wilderness where it’s tough to see a way forward.  Because of this, we rightly celebrate those who make it to the mountaintop and show us all a vision of where we could go and who we could be.  Now that we are in Black History Month, we hear of Martin Luther King’s mountaintop, and we remember others to celebrate, but how quickly we forget about all the valleys, all the opposition and much worse that he and others endured on the way up and on the way down from the mountaintop.  Sure, we love King’s Dream now, but he received widespread criticism then for his anti-Vietnam speech.  We revere Muhammed Ali now as a hero, but his opposition to that same war earned him scorn then. 

          Returning to today, many of us have watched with bated breath and sickened stomachs some of the proceedings of the trial of Dr. Larry Nassar, the doctor from Michigan State and USA gymnastics who sexually assaulted hundreds of young girls.  Seeing those girls, now women, line up one after the other and share their stories, confront their abuser, has been overwhelming.  Oh, I simply cannot imagine what it’s like to be that vulnerable after being so violated.  That courage is simply beyond what any words I can find. 

Imagine how it was for the first to speak out, Rachael Denhollander. No glory there.  I should be careful about saying, “the first” because it seems many spoke and were not heard.  There was no glory for them, simply shame added upon shame, the shame of not having their voice or experiences validated on top of the shame of the abuse itself.  As for Denhollander, she risked everything in coming forward, and she lost much too.

          As a pastor, there was one thing Denhollander said that was particularly hard to hear.  As Christianity Today reported, in her impact statement Denhollander said, “My advocacy for sexual assault victims…cost me my church.”[1]  When she advocated within the evangelical community for victims of assault who had been ignored by church leaders, the pushback came, the opposition came, and worse.  They attacked her and they accused her rather than listening to her and the evidence she brought to them, “mountains” of evidence in her words.  No glory on that mountain. 

          Sometimes the church lets its people down not by directly defying them in this way, but in speaking in a way that sends an unintentional but potentially hurtful message.  For example, one could go back and look at that community prayer we just read and wonder, in light of the Larry Nassar example, “Did I sin by not speaking up after being abused?”  “Have I fallen short by not forgiving my abuser?”  No.  If you are someone who suffered under someone in this manner, let me be clear that God’s first and last word to you is love, compassion, and a cry for justice.  No one should ever have forgiveness forced upon them.  I don’t want anyone to leave this church today feeling doubly victimized.  

          Those who speak out and stand up for what’s right take enormous risk and often suffer pretty painful consequences.  Most of us, God-willing, will never have to be martyred, like Dr. King was, or publicly defy a sexual predator—though the statistics on how many have faced this are more than sobering, and we all have our own suffering.  For many of us, it’s the small ways in which we can speak out and stand up that will measure our climb to and from the mountaintop (and our character).  Some months ago, we must have been talking about racism or sexism, and the lector for the service offered a poignant prayer—that we might learn to stand up not just in the big moments, but also the small ones, in casual conversations, around the water cooler, with friends and acquaintances.  He prayed we might not join in or even quietly assent to jokes, characterizations, words about others that denigrated, stereotyped, and held up prejudices. 

          For someone like me, who would prefer to avoid conflict, that’s not easy.  It’s easier to let it go.  “God loves me and understands, and forgives,” I think.  I do believe those things, and I also believe God loves me into courage in uncomfortable situations.  For every micro-aggression that erodes at the dignity of another other, there is the equal opportunity for micro-healing, micro-fortifying of truth, and micro-justice.  There’s not much glory in it, but it is how most of the progress gets made.

          Part of what public figures who take great stands at great risk do is provide cover for the rest of us join in.  They’ve taken the hardest step.  We just have to take the next one, to become what’s been referred to in other realms as a “first-follower.”  It’s not as dramatic as being a lone prophet, and it still involves risk, but it is critical if the singular righteous act will gain momentum.  First followers help turn a powerful moment into a movement.  We spend a lot of time on heroes and innovators; first followers are just as important because they enable the masses to join in.

          One could say the job of the Christian is always to be a first-follower because we stand under the cover of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, who in his teaching and in his being showed us, and shows us, how to live.  We don’t ever then step out alone, even though sometimes we think that’s our calling.  The great Older Testament Scholar Walter Brueggemann is often asked about prophetic preaching.  “How can we preach prophetically in the church today, when people don’t want to hear it?” preachers ask.  Brueggemann responds that Christians don’t always have to be prophets; most of the time they simply have to stand behind and stand with the prophets God has given us, behind God’s word passed down to us.  There may not be as much glory in it, but there is plenty of goodness.

          Being a first-follower of God gives enormous direction and strength.  Denhollander reflected on how her Christian faith enabled her to speak up.  She said,

In terms of how my faith played a part in making that decision, God is the God of justice, these things are evil, and it is biblical, right, and godly to pursue justice. I had to make a decision to do what was right no matter what the cost was. I felt I was the best one in a position to do that. At the time I went forward to Indy Star, I didn’t know that there were any others at all. About two weeks after I went forward to them, someone else did contact them. But that person did not feel ready to speak publicly yet, and I completely respected that decision. I felt that because of my worldview and because of the support system that I had, I was the one positioned to bear that cost and that it would be worth it regardless of the outcome.[2]

 In Jesus Christ, we have someone who has already stood out on our behalf, taken risk, showed us the way and suffered, suffered under Pontius Pilate as the creed goes, was dead and was buried…but on the third day Jesus rose again from the dead.

          We are a resurrection people.  The kind of love beneath which we stand cannot be killed, at least for long.  It gets back up even when it has been through hell, so the creed goes.  We are about to enter Lent this week, a time that mirrors not Jesus’ time of glory on the mountaintop, but his time of challenge in the wilderness, when he faced his demons.  It can be a powerful time for reflection, examination, and prayer.  It is often paired with the notion of stripping away what is extraneous, what is comfortable not for the glorification of suffering, but for the purpose of training for endurance of suffering, and for the ability to again experience sweetness and glory in ways grand and granular.

          Colleagues of mine once gave up sweet things for Lent, not sweets, but anything that tasted sweet, even fruit.  The point was that when Easter came they wanted their first bite of something sweet to be overwhelming, a symbol of the overwhelming and sustaining sweetness of life in Christ, the kind of sweetness that allows us to endure the bitter times.  I’m not sure what it was they first ate.  Perhaps it was cake.  Having had an authentic Lenten journey, I trust they would have enjoyed it knowing you can’t eat your cake and have it too.  Amen.


 [2] Ibid.