Listen to the sermon from Sunday, February 7, 2016 titled “Lost in Spectacle” by guest preacher George Oliver.
During my undergraduate years, I was forced into a lot of classes that would drain the life right out of me. And though I love her today, perhaps the single most cringe-inducing of them, based on her written requirements, was Penny Hassekoester. She became the Department Chair of Theatre and Dance at Sam Houston while I was in the program. She taught inspirational classes like Theory and Criticism, Stage Management, and History of American Musical Theatre. And even better than the topics she taught was the fact that as department chair, she got preference to set her classes at what ever time she wanted, so she chose to do all her classes at 8:00 AM. Now if you know theatre students, 8 o’clock is generally only observed at curtain rise during evening performances, but is not a functional time for upper-level thinking when, even in Texas, the sun hasn’t quite warmed up. Penny loved details, and would drive a lazy student like myself crazy when paper time came a calling.
Her favorite torture technique was to have us analyze works of theatre from how well or poorly they incorporated elements found in Aristotle’s Poetics, the quintessential user-guide to doing drama right. But I figured out a little trick in writing those papers: always speak highly of character and thought, while offering your highest critique of spectacle. As long as you did this, your paper would turn out pretty well. And though I don’t have time to dive deeply into the Aristotelian elements, I think that Aristotle has some prescient notions which we can see at work in the text today.
To Aristotle, the idea of having a helicopter dropping from the ceiling in Miss Saigon, vivid displays of lights, or creepy sound effects were pretty problematic, because these spectacles frequently pulled focus away from the written ideas and their human vessels. To Aristotle spectacle was that element you reach for when you want to cheapen a moment or compensate for weak writing or acting. If it takes a prop or some makeup to achieve in the audience the suspension of disbelief, then it probably goes to say your audience is likely being manipulated, rather than engaged. And if I’m allowed to have one brief aside of commentary, I’d say right here that this is a major problem in the church today. For far too many, church has become about laser-lit concerts on Sunday morning, with big costumes, and celebrity preachers and singers. Church discussions center on building the biggest stages, attracting the biggest audiences, and dumbing down the content to the point that there’s no longer any mystery in the faith. Aristotle would turn his nose up to most of modern theatre and contemporary church. But what we need to draw from him today is his suspicion that spectacle distracts us from the main idea. But for our purposes for the next few minutes, let us agree that spectacles are those grand things we see, feel, or experience which can challenge convention, inspire awe, and frequently pull personal attention away from our common call.
First of all, let us use the text to establish some of what qualifies as spectacle in and around the Biblical text. Chapter 9 of the Gospel of Luke is one of the most remarkable chapters in the Bible for its sheer breadth of examples and quotable verses. This is the chapter that gave us, “if any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.”
This is the chapter in which Jesus says to the challenge of feeding 5,000, “give ye them to eat,” and all the people were fed. This is the chapter in which Jesus dispatches the disciples with their first evangelical instructions, “take nothing for your journey…” It is Chapter 9 that leads us to the famous, “who do they say I am,” quandary, followed immediately by the query, “but whom say ye that I am?” And Peter answers, “The Christ.” In another account of this same moment, Jesus says to him, “Flesh and blood have not revealed this to you…” Chapter 9 is chocked full of these amazing tidbits. So amazing are these spectacles that crowds press their way from village to village, from mountain to valley, and even across the waters to see this man from Galilee doing the unexpected in their presence. Now, if we are in the business of truth telling, then we have to acknowledge that some of this stuff in Chapter 9 seems a little out there. I mean if we let the wrong person cook, we’ll easily run out of food at church gatherings or family dinners, and that’s with prior planning. But 5,000 men, along with thousands of uncounted women and children, are just too many to absorb. It’s a problem that when you read about it, even we Christians have to admit seems a little too big to solve. It’s a problem like finding the will to save a city of over 100,000 people from being poisoned by lead in their water. It’s a problem like finding common humanity with people fleeing war torn countries, who approach our shores to discover not-so-much brave homes, but anxious ones that got that way after crashing planes, border crimes, and random acts of violence stained our public memory. It’s a problem like me having to explain why Black lives matter and that police should be protecting and serving, rather than being protected and served. It’s a problem like being a presidential candidate and saying Mexican migrants are rapists, or that Muslims shouldn’t be allowed to immigrate, and rather than being laughed off the public stage, you get applauded. Chapter 9 presents us with some pretty big challenges, and even those who walked with Jesus, talked with him, devoted their lives and livelihoods to him, and had in Chapter 8 seen him stop a storm by speaking to it, in Chapter 7 witnessed him raise a child from the dead, in Chapter 6 had witnessed him heal a man’s hand on the Sabbath, and in Chapter 5 were stunned as Jesus precisely predicted where the fishers should cast their nets. The disciples, with all their proximity to the wonder working Jesus, were not immune from getting caught up in the fantastic things they were seeing, feeling, and experiencing, so much so, that their own work became impaired.
Where our text begins today is with Jesus ascending a mountain with a few of his disciples to pray. While on the mountain Jesus becomes an honorary member of the Illuminati, because his face, body and clothes literally light up. The glory of the Lord, which shined on the wave at creation, the glory of the Lord, which twinkled in the sky so wise kings could find the Christ child, the glory of the Lord, who’s shadow was so bright Moses couldn’t look upon it, the glory of the Lord appears upon Jesus, while he speaks with Moses and Elijah on a mountain. And to this fantastic sight, Peter and the others witnessing it are dumbfound, searching for words, seeking some response. Maybe we should build an altar. Maybe three. Maybe we can stay right in this holy place and never leave. What the hell did we just see? And as if that wasn’t enough, then comes down a cloud that encompasses them all. It was a cloud like what came to Moses when he spoke with God. It was a cloud like what entered the temple and disallowed the priests from working. It was the manifested presence of God saying, “This is my son, you should listen to him.” And as big as this moment is, as confirming as it is of the call and ministry of Jesus, as epic as it is hearing the voice of God speak to you, the moment and the words God spoke point to a deeper truth: the light show didn’t come before the eyes of the disciples to be applauded, the light came to be applied to the people Jesus was sent to save. That’s why at the beginning of Chapter 9 it says, “then he called his twelve disciples together, and gave them power and authority over all devils, and to cure diseases…and he sent them to preach the kingdom of God, and to heal the sick.” That’s why Jesus says in Matthew Chapter 5, verse 16, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” And as our pericope does not end with the light show, I think it is important to see the ultimate lesson being taught in this moment. After the lights went out, and the smoke had cleared, Jesus and the disciples come back down to earth and find that the work he has entrusted to the disciples was not being done. As the text makes clear at the top of 9, Jesus had already given them power to set people free from demonic mindsets that were crippling the people. Not only had he given them the power, but they had already been doing it. And it is this fact that frustrates Jesus to no end. You’ve watched me and learned from me, but I go away for a short while and you forget everything that I’ve taught you. How long?
It is Jesus’ profound disappointment in his disciples that leaps out at me in today’s text. Jesus is telling us that we can’t settle for half-measures. Jesus is reminding us that as long as there is pain, as long as there is human hurting, as long as the world will leave all these people to linger in the delusion of permanent problems, we disciples cannot afford the luxury of powerlessness. God has given us power to change the world around us into the kingdom that is within us. God is with us as we stop getting lost in the spectacle of His awesomeness, and find ourselves faithfully grounded in the transformative power of His creative will, which Auden says, “asked being for us all.” And though all around us today looks so dire, feels so impossible, and leaves us doubting whether our efforts will or can change anything, I dare you to believe that this church can make a difference. I dare you to step out on faith and speak life to those who so often have circumstance has caused to believe more in pointlessness. I ask you not to forsake the high calling that is upon you, upon me, upon us all. Who will press on, in spite of the reports? Who will carry even though our savior is watching us from a distance? Who will keep preaching good news to those whom society has kept poor, recovery to those who have been dispossessed, liberty to those who have been bound, and right now as the acceptable time for God’s kingdom to finally replace earth’s corruption? It is our mandate not to forget that when Jesus commissioned us to be the light of the world that he didn’t write out a Plan B. We are the change we seek. And if we finish these dear unfinished tasks of his, we perpetuate power in the very midst of weakness, we show our world that there is another way, and we live out God’s original purpose, in that for the wild and wasted void, we will not only bear light, but be light. Not for the sake of applause, but for the sake of His people, whom He crossed the void to save and inspire. Let us do likewise. Amen.