Jesus and the Festival of Hope

A reflection on Matthew 17:1-9 by Andrew Stephens-Rennie at Christ Church Cathedral’s St. Brigids congregation in Vancouver, BC

This week I nearly fell off my seat on the SkyTrain when I realized that Katy Perry’s new single, Chained to the Rhythm is, at its core, a modern retelling of Matthew Chapters 16-17.

I listened over and over again, head bopping in disbelief. Trying to take it all in. Giving into the groove and the oft-repeated lines

Turn it up, it’s your favorite song
Dance, dance, dance to the distortion
Turn it up, keep it on repeat

I turned it up. I listened. Again and again and again. And even though I will not admit that it’s become my favourite song, I listened.

And then I started to read my bible. And here’s the crazy thing. It could just be coincidence, of course. But it could also be that the young Katy was paying attention in Sunday School.

Stranger things have happened.

It could be that the artist formerly known as Katy Hudson, who released a rather disappointing debut in the Contemporary Christian music scene back in 2001 has returned. Or it could be that she and Tim Tebow have rekindled their rumoured romance or started a bible study.

Who really knows?

You might remember the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, chapter 16 when the Pharisees and Sadducees – religious authorities, teachers and guardians of God’s law – came to Jesus to test him. They demand a sign. Prove to us that you are in touch with God. Prove to us that you are heaven-sent.

And Jesus throws it back in their face. “You know how to interpret the signs of the sky,” he says, “you can hear the stories of people, but you can’t interpret, you can’t hear the crying of the times.”

God’s law is meant to create and form a beloved community, to provide a framework for human and creational flourishing. It was meant to help you live differently from the culture in which you wore chains. But you’ve sure messed that one up.

Listen up.
Look around.
Is this what human flourishing looks like?

In the musical version of this scene, Katy Perry breaks in:

Are we crazy?
Living our lives through a lens
Trapped in our white-picket fence
Like ornaments
So comfortable, we live in a bubble
So comfortable, we cannot see the trouble

Jesus points the blinded, bewildered Pharisees to the suffering surrounding them. He motions to the ever-increasing crowd of people who are finding hope in his message of self-sacrificial love.

They’ve figured out what he represents. They’ve figured out that Jesus’ movement will not culminate in a festival announcing Hope for some while casting others to the curb. For once there’s a leader who doesn’t traffick in bigotry and blind nationalism, kicking refugees, sexual minorities, or people of different faiths to the curb. They’ve figured something out about the kind of future he promises. And that they play an integral role in its inauguration.

Jesus has just come from feeding five, then four thousand people. He knows the cries of the oppressed. He hasn’t heard them from a distance, hasn’t sent out his advance team to pick and choose a few convenient stories for the press. Instead of retreating to country clubs or dining at the finest restaurants, he breaks bread with one and all on mountainsides and fields, at soup kitchens and cafes. He’s shared food with the hungry, talked long into the night around the fire.

And Jesus has this growing number of followers. Many of whom have been kicked to the margins. By the empire. By the religious establishment. Many of whom would not find any hope in the travelling road show being marketed at the stadium down the road.

The sick, the poor, the disenfranchised, the abnormal, the weird, the ones who don’t measure up or fit into neat little boxes, and those who have been forced into them, imprisoned.

“What’s more,” Jesus says in aside to his disciples, “the teaching of the Pharisees is nothing more than rotten yeast. It may look good to them, but it reeks of bondage and chains and empire. It sounds like everything God has freed us from.”

The Pharisees, they carry on with their yammering, all the while ignoring the real needs in front of them. There they go building a fortress of power and so-called right religion, all the while ignoring the pain and suffering on their doorsteps of those who want desperately to hear some good news, a word of hope, for a change.

Their hoarding, self-interested lives remove God from the centre. It is no little irony that their very focus on keeping the law is causing them to break it. By focusing on each rule and regulation, people are quite literally dying around them. They may not have their fingers on the trigger, but the systems of exclusion are doing a very good job at murder, accompanied with an alibi and plausible deniability.

Katy chimes in with the next verse:

Aren’t you lonely
Up there in utopia
Where nothing will ever be enough?
Happily numb
So comfortable, we live in a bubble
So comfortable, we cannot see the trouble
So Good
Your rose-coloured glasses on
And party on

And the gospel goes on. It goes on, and on. It goes on to tell us that the same illness that has infected the religious leaders of the day hasn’t stopped there. The darkness is around us. But it’s within us too. And we’re reminded of another mountaintop earlier in Matthew’s gospel when Jesus teaches the disciples to pray. Deliver me, deliver us from evil. From selfishness. From covetousness. From greed. From all that prevents us from joining into the God Life, the Kingdom of Heaven Life, Life on the Jesus Way.

In this week’s email blast, Marnie wrote “More important than Christmas, Easter is the season that we stake our lives on.” I was sitting next to her when I read it. I immediately demanded to know why she wanted to make such a big deal of things.

As if this is what the Jesus story is about.

I was half-joking. But half-not. I spend plenty of time critiquing theology without teeth, theology without real implications for this world. And yet there are plenty of days that I do not want to deal with those implications. There are plenty of days I don’t want to pick up the cross and follow Jesus. There are plenty of days that I don’t want to leave my little utopia and engage with the trouble, the reality of what it might mean to walk with Jesus into keeping a holy lent.

Sometimes I feel like Peter.

After Jesus foretells the story of his death and resurrection, Peter jumps up to rebuke him, to shut him down, to stop him from his madness, saying “God forbid it Lord! This must never happen to you.”

Katy’s got this covered too:

Are we tone deaf?
Keep sweeping it under the mat
Thought we can do better than that
I hope we can
So comfortable, we live in a bubble
So comfortable, we can’t see the trouble

And that’s when Jesus takes Peter, James and John up on the mountain. Like Elijah before him, like Moses before them, Jesus heads up a mountain looking for a word from God. Mountains feature prominently in Matthew’s gospel, and prominently in the Hebrew story of Salvation. Mountains are meant to bring clarity. Perspective.

It’s on Mt. Sinai that Moses receives the tablets carrying God’s commandments for living in a way unlike the Egyptian slave culture they had just left.

It’s on Horeb that Elijah regroups after calling out King Ahab and Jezebel, after humiliating them and slaying their false prophets.

Turn it up, it’s your favorite song
Dance, dance, dance to the distortion
Turn it up, keep it on repeat
Stumbling around like a wasted zombie
Yeah, we think we’re free
Drink, this one is on me
We’re all chained to the rhythm
To the rhythm to the rhythm

Jesus takes Peter, James and John up on the mountain to shake off the song of complacency, of false utopia that’s still jamming on repeat. As they ascend the hill, the music’s still playing, but thankfully, graciously, the music begins a slow fade, and finally stops.

As they summit the mountain, Jesus’ friends break free of the chains, the distorted rhythm of the religious and imperial culture that has them enslaved. For a brief moment they experience a break from the chains that have them stumbling like wasted zombies, drinking from the well of anxiety to numb their pain in a world of grasping and illusion, chained to the rhythm, chained to the rhythm they didn’t even know was there.

At the top of the mountain, they break free of the saccharine pop that has been driving their lives, ready, finally ready, for another voice to break in. At the top of the mountain, Jesus’ identity, and purpose, and vision for a new world is clarified. Jesus is transfigured, face shining like the sun, clothes dazzling white. The symbols of divinity. The manifestation of God’s presence. The roadmap ahead. All becomes clear.

God quotes God’s self, reminding Jesus and reminding the disciples of what was said at Jesus’ baptism.

Reminding us – and perhaps the Peters amongst and within us most of all – “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.”

Listen to him. Listen to what he’s up to, listen to where he’s going. And don’t say anything until after the resurrection. Don’t say anything until the impossible has happened. Don’t say anything until the moment of absurdity – the ludicrous moment of God’s death on the trash pit of the capital city collapses any notion you had of divinity or power. Don’t say anything until the holy of holies and the tomb prove to be empty.

God’s own voice reminds us, remembers us, puts God’s own people back together, establishing the continuity of the Jesus Movement with the greatest heroes and movements in Israel’s history. Moses, the one who led the people out of slavery into God’s freedom. Elijah, the prophet daring to stand up against the idolatries of a conflating religious faith with unquestioning nationalism.

Like Jesus and his disciples.

Maybe that’s what it means to stake our lives on this. To speak a word of embrace in the face of exclusion. To be a community reconciliation in a world of alienation.

Jesus is leading the charge, is leading the change. And as I encounter him today – in scripture, and through the unlikely reporting of Katy Perry, I’m convinced that he’s leading me, leading us now as he was then. Leading us into the absurdity of a God who would die. Leading us into the absurdity of a cross-shaped salvation. Throwing a monkey wrench into a gospel of fear, shattering the idolatry of an oppressive God, and calling us to journey back down the mountain as changed people who will joining him in freeing the slaves, as we sing songs of freedom.

This is where the voice of Bob Marley’s grandson appropriately breaks through the noise, interrupting Katy, cutting through the apathy with a word of liberation, if only we’d listen.

It is my desire
Break down the walls to connect, inspire
Ay, up in your high place, liars
Time is ticking for the empire
The truth they feed is feeble
As so many times before
They greed over the people
They stumbling and fumbling and we’re about to riot
They woke up, they woke up the lions (woo!)

Andrew Stephens-Rennie on FacebookAndrew Stephens-Rennie on Twitter
Andrew Stephens-Rennie
Andrew is a writer, dreamer and organizer with a keen interest in developing leaders in faith, compassion and justice.

Andrew serves on staff at Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, BC as Director of Ministry Innovation, with primary responsibility for St. Brigids, an emerging Christian community where questions are honoured, faith is nurtured, and discipleship pursued.
Tags

Leave a Reply