March 12, 2017

Church of Peace, UCC

Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield

Matthew 17:1-13

Remembering Where We Come From


“Jesus Loves Me” is a song that evokes my earliest memories of church. These days if I hear it sung in a different language, if I hear a bluegrass version or a South African version, there is something about this song that taps into my subconscious and makes me remember where I come from. There’s no getting around it.


One of the places I come from is a white church in rural Ohio where I lived for my first four years. I remember the strangeness of church. I remember sitting on the floor eating dry Cheerios. I remember the old-timey smell of the wrinkled plastic floor mats in the entry way. I remember being utterly perplexed in Sunday School when Greg F. told the rest of us you had better eat paste or your bones wouldn’t stick together. I remember standing in the cluster of children singing “Jesus Loves Me” in front of a congregation of smiling grown-ups. It was strange, and serious, and exactly right.


This year during Lent, our worship series is exploring the spiritual work of remembering. This kind of remembering is not just recalling information. It’s not mastering the art of Never Forgetting. This kind of remembering invites us to consider how God is at work in the piecing together of our own back story.


What does it mean to remember where you come from? It might be a place — a country across the oceans or a town twelve miles from here. It might be a formative experience from your childhood. It might be that you come from a people, or a culture, or a family.


Whatever it means for you to remember where you come from, I’m pretty sure this has something to do with how you got here. It has something to do with the power you harbor, with the light you can emanate and the shadows you can summon. Remembering where you come from might conjure up feelings of comfort, like a Sunday School teacher singing “Jesus Loves Me.” Remembering where you come from might be frightening; it can expose the truth as threatening as the claim that Jesus loves me, that Jesus loves you, this I know…



Today our Gospel reading tells a story of the truth getting exposed. See what happens is Jesus goes up the mountain to pray, like he does. But this time, he brings with him Peter, James, and John. Right in front of them, Jesus is transfigured. His face shines like the sun, and his clothes become dazzling white —his full divinity on display; his full humanity on display; all awash in the light of God. While this is happening, Jesus begins speaking with Moses and Elijah. And maybe they are ghosts or maybe they’re really there, what we know is that Peter, James, and John can see them.


So Peter speaks up and says what nobody completely believes: “Lord, it is good for us to be here.” Um… is it really? Do you feel the collision of worlds, here Jesus is speaking to the prophets who have gone before, in front of his friends who have just seen his bare naked light. Moses and Elijah, meet Peter, and James, and John. It’s like when your friends meet your coworkers, and then it gets worse. While Peter is trying to offer some help, a bright cloud overshadows them and the voice from the cloud speaks the promise of baptism. “Hey! This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him!”


You’ve got to wonder how this is for Jesus. God just called him out in front of his friends. Moses and Elijah vanish; they must’ve gone back where they came from. For a whole long minute, Jesus is left standing there alone. His friends have fallen to the ground overcome with fear; the echo from the cloud is still ringing in the air.


Jesus goes over and touches them, “Do not be afraid.” And I’m so sad for him! It’s like Jesus wanted his friends to see who he really is. He wants them to understand, and they don’t understand. Going back down the mountain, Jesus tells them that the Son of Man will be raised from the dead, and they try to follow, but they think Jesus is talking about John the Baptist. So never mind.


Still. What happened on the mountain changes everybody’s story. In the shining of the light of Christ, humanity and divinity collide. In this moment, it’s not that the people speak to Jesus who speaks to God on our behalf. God interrupts the action and yells at Peter directly. Peter, and James, and John hear the unmediated voice of God and fall down on the ground overcome by fear. No going through Moses, no going through Jesus.


The people can hear God. So when God says, “Hey! This is my son. I love him,” I wonder whether Peter realizes that this could happen to him too… If I’m on to something here, this means the threat is not that our deepest shame will be called out for all the world to hear. It’s not that God will speak to us pronouncing our sin. It’s that God will say, “Hey! These people are my children. I love them.” “Hey! You are my child. I love you.”


Turns out, Peter was right after all. “Lord, it is good for us to be here,” he says. Remember where you come from, so we can find our way here, so we can be the ones who say to the Lord: “Here I am.”



I recently finished reading an extraordinary book called Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson who’s a criminal defense attorney and the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative. Throughout the book, Stevenson describes the case of Walter McMillan, a man who was wrongfully charged with murdering Ronda Morrison. When a witness recanted his previous testimony, Stevenson won a new hearing for McMillan which takes place over three days.[1]


On the first day, when Stevenson and his colleague arrived at the courthouse, they were surprised to find that Walter McMillan’s community had come out to support him. People who knew Walter from his childhood, people who were with him at a fish fry that was happening at the same time as the crime, the people who knew where Walter came from— these were the people who had shown up to be with him for the hearing. Talk about a collision of worlds in that courtroom!


Well, the prosecution was less-than-pleased with this outpouring of support. So on the second day, they were ready. They arranged for family members of Ronda Morrison to fill the courtroom while a deputy was stationed at the door to refuse entry to Walter’s supporters. When Stevenson arrived, he argued with the judge who decided that a small number of supporters could go in in. So the group determined that Walter’s immediate family should go, of course, then one of the pastors called on Mrs. Williams. Mrs. Williams was a matriarch of this community. When she was chosen, she stood up, gathered her composure and began walking toward the courtroom door with unashamed authority.


They discovered a metal detector had been installed just inside the courtroom door, but that wasn’t the problem. Just on the other side of the metal detector was an officer holding the leash of a German Shepherd. When Mrs. Williams noticed the dog, she crumbled. She began shaking and tears streamed down her face. Stevenson writes: “I didn’t know exactly what happened to Mrs. Williams, but I knew that here in Alabama, police dogs and black folks looking for justice had never mixed well.”[2] That was the second day.


Later Mrs. Williams explained that seeing the dog in the courtroom made her remember what happened to her at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in nineteen sixty-five. There is nothing safe about remembering. Remembering can unearth the trauma and confront us with the truth of who we really are. There’s nothing safe about showing up for each other.


On the third day, Mrs. Williams showed up at the courthouse for the trial. She gathered her composure, but this time she walked into the courtroom, repeating the mantra: “Lord, I can’t be scared of no dog.” She walked past the dog, found a spot in the front, and announced, “Attorney Stevenson, I am here.” He greeted her as the courtroom began filling up, the judge entered, and everyone sat down. Except Mrs. Williams. She remained standing, leaned her head back, and shouted “I’m here!” Then she sat down. I really hope her statement made it into the official record of the trial.


The problem is there’s nothing safe about remembering where we come from. There’s nothing safe about showing up for each other whether it’s following your friends up the mountain, or walking past a dog in the courtroom, or walking into a church. I have come to believe there is no way to get found out by Jesus, then asked to follow, and not get scared.


So when this happens, it becomes critically important to know what it is that we’re really afraid of —because it might be our power. Writer Marianne Williamson says it like this: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us…  We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”[3]


Now remembering where you come from is not just your native country or your hometown, not just your family, not even what happened to you on the most traumatic day of your life. Ultimately, where you come from is love. All of us come from the voice in the bright cloud who interrupts the world to say, “Hey! I love you.” So our own voices learn how to interrupt proceedings and say: “I’m here. Do not be afraid.” See when you remember where you come from, now there’s no place you cannot go. There’s no place you cannot show up even though you might expose the truth of God in the light of your being.


This is the truth we announce on the record and sing with our children: Jesus loves me, Jesus loves you. This I know… Amen.

[1] Stevenson, Bryan. Just Mercy. Spiel and Grau: New York, 2014. pages 165-181.

[2] Stevenson 177.

[3] from A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of ‘ A Course in Miracles.’

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