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"What Do You Notice?" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - February 11, 2018

posted Feb 14, 2018, 2:29 PM by Plymouth Church UCC

Every year I watch the Super Bowl.  Others in my house root for teams; I’m there for the wings and chips.  But also the commercials.

This year one of those commercials affected how I imagined the scripture reading we heard today.  The Gospel of Mark sounded like one of those Super Bowl commercials.  The camera pans to Peter, James, and John standing on the mountain with Jesus, rugged guys in the woods.  And then, as Mark explains, “Jesus was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.” And then Peter turns to the camera, “Tide Commercial.”

But another commercial caught my attention even more: the use of Martin Luther King’s stirring Drum Major Instinct sermon to sell Ram Trucks.  In the speech, King reflected on the story of James and John, on the way down from the mountain, asking Jesus for positions of authority in his kingdom.  The disciples utterly missed the point of Jesus’ teaching.  And King zeroed in on this in his sermon, speaking of the “drum major instinct” inside all of us that pushes us to be praised, to be first of all our peers; that desire to have position of power.

King talked about the way advertisers appealed to our drum major instinct in their ads, saying:

“Now the presence of this instinct explains why we are so often taken by advertisers. You know, those gentlemen of massive verbal persuasion. And they have a way of saying things to you that kind of gets you into buying. In order to be a man of distinction, you must drink this whiskey. In order to make your neighbors envious, you must drive this type of car.”

Ram Trucks didn’t include King’s comments about car advertisers in the commercial. Instead they lifted King’s evocation of true greatness that comes from service to others: loving somebody, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting those in prison, trying to love and serve humanity.

Ever since the commercial aired, people came out against its use of King’s sermon to sell trucks.  Such irony: King’s sermon on disciples not understanding Jesus misused by people who didn’t understand King.  In that aftermath, I couldn’t help but wonder, “How did someone not notice King’s critique of advertisers?  How did someone not notice this would be problematic?”

Today, I want to think with you about the spiritual practice of noticing.  To me this word links together two defining practices of our faith.  The practice of prayer involves noticing; so does the work of justice.  We are called to be disciples that notice.

Our Gospel lesson from Mark makes this point by telling stories of the ways the disciples failed to notice what was right in front of them.  We heard first of Peter rebuking Jesus because he didn’t understand his teaching.  But I’m more interested in the second story, up on the mountain.

Jesus liked to pray in remote places.  This time he took Peter, James, and John along with him to pray up on a mountain (the same people he will take with him to the Garden of Gethsemane).  This time the disciples see something amazing: Jesus changes before them, seemingly glowing from within, radiant in prayer.  As Jesus spoke in prayer, it seemed as if Moses and Elijah were right beside him, the three of them talking and praying together.

Even decades later Peter would vividly recall what he saw, writing to friends, “We were eyewitnesses of his majesty.  He received honor and glory from God when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’  We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.”

But at the time, when he first saw his friend seemingly transformed, Peter felt terrified.  Throughout the Bible, fear was the typical response to a divine manifestation.  Peter felt that; and in his fear, Peter came up with a solution.  “Let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

People often comment on why Peter made this particular suggestion; but I want to call attention to something else: this moment where Peter tried to turn his discomfort into a solution.

It reminds me of something I often see in difficult conversations.  Just at the point of discomfort, people turn to problem solving.  Haven’t you felt that too?  You share something, make yourself vulnerable; and the other person responds with advice, the classic, “Well let me tell you what you should do.”

This also happens in conversations about race and racial justice.  The other day I went to a book group with Rhonda Hill, our preacher last Sunday.  We were talking about white supremacy and a white person in the group rushed for a solution, asking Rhonda, “What can we do?”  And Rhonda paused to note in a gracious way the pattern of rushing towards solutions.  Instead, she asked the person to slow down, to feel the pain.  As Rhonda said, “African-Americans have been dealing with this for four hundred years; just listen to the pain.”

Peter used his initiative and action as a mask to cover his fear.  But what would have happened if instead Peter noticed his discomfort?  Too often, like Peter, discomfort leads us to ramble on when we might instead just listen.

In this case a voice from heaven thundered, “This is my son, my beloved, listen to him.”  God dramatically entered the story; I’m sure a terrified Peter was even more scared.  But notice: God offered no new insights to Peter, James, and John.  Instead, God called their attention back to what they had missed.  “Listen to him.”  Presumably, the disciples had been hearing Jesus talk all along; hearing but not listening.  Now God redirects them to notice what Jesus said; to listen.

This reminds me of a quote from Oscar Wilde, who once said, “At present, people see fogs, not because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects. There may have been fogs for centuries in London. I dare say there were. But no one saw them, and so we do not know anything about them. They did not exist till art had invented them.”  As Wilde said, the fog had to be noticed in order to be seen.

God, like an artist, called the disciples to notice Jesus.  That day up on the mountain didn’t mark the moment when Jesus became something great; not his transformation into the divine.  Instead, the perception of the disciples changed up on the mountain; they noticed what was always true.

Recently, prodded on by my friend Dana, I started taking yoga for the first time.  Dana both leads the Human Trafficking Task Force of Greater Milwaukee and serves as associate pastor of a Pentecostal church.

Our yoga teacher designed the class for novices.  She will describe the way we will do a yoga flow, moving from one pose to the next, flowing from cobra to downward-facing-dog to warrior; all of which takes me to the edge of my coordination.  Sometimes I think the only pose I’ve mastered is quizzical-dog-face.  And while everyone else does a yoga flow, mine looks more like a yoga fumble.

Dana and I were talking between yoga sessions; she described how she experienced the graceful movements of our yoga practice as a form of praise.  Sun salutations to Jesus.  I confessed to Dana: I’m in the back of the class and while everyone else does the half-moon pose, I’m praying, “Jesus don’t let me fall over.”

Thankfully our yoga teacher keeps repeating phrases like “notice your body,” “stretch to your limit,” and “take this pose at your level.”  The apostle Paul said in Romans that the Holy Spirit prays inside of us with sighs too deep for human words.  Noticing my body feels like listening to the Holy Spirit praying.  Notice your body.  I live in a culture which treats the white male body as the norm, the universal.  But I’m the only white man in my yoga class.  And far from feeling my body to be universal, I feel my limits.

God entered the story of the Transfiguration to call the disciples to notice; I think noticing is God’s movement in our soul.  “Notice your body,” my yoga teacher reminds me; and it comes as a word of grace: discover your limits, find your strength, remember to breathe, stretch to your limit.

What did the disciples notice about Jesus?  His odd language about a suffering and dying Messiah.  This ran opposite of their expectations.  People in the time of Jesus thought of a Messiah in terms of military strength and victory.  Peter gave voice to this when he rebuked Jesus; he expected Jesus to win, not to die; to conquer, not to be crucified; to lead a military parade, not a march to Golgotha.

The Transfiguration story didn’t explain the reason for the crucifixion.  Indeed, I sometimes even wonder if Jesus understood the reason, as his cry on the cross sounded both dejected and confused.

But it gave the disciples a chance to see Jesus holding together two concepts: suffering and glory, his prediction of rejection with the profound affirmation of heaven’s blessing.

Jesus invited the disciples to join in that crux of suffering and glory; “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Yet we often misunderstand Jesus, thinking that “taking up a cross” means any kind of suffering.  We forgot that the cross and crucifixion represented conflict with the Roman Empire, confrontation with the power of domination and oppression.  And so the cross was not some private woe but a vigorous and public pursuit of social justice that resisted the power of domination and deception.  We can find the cross in all our work for racial justice.

A sense of glory sustained Jesus in that work.  Not glory in the sense of fame.  And certainly not glory in the sense of angels playing harps.  But glory that came in heaven’s assurance, “with you I am well pleased.”  King spoke of that glory at the end of his Drum Major Instinct Sermon, when he imagined himself saying to Jesus, “Yes, Jesus, I want to be on your right or your left side, not for any selfish reason. I want to be on your right or your left side, not in terms of some political kingdom or ambition. But I just want to be there in love and in justice and in truth and in commitment to others, so that we can make of this old world a new world.”

This week we will begin the Season of Lent, a time when we focus in a particular way on what we can do to follow Jesus.  This Lent, I hope we each take to heart the call of God to notice; noticing the way God is moving in our hearts and the need for justice in our world.

Alleluia and Amen.


King, Martin Luther, “Drum Major Instinct,” widely available online.