“Too Big for a Tiny House”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
2Six 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. (NRSV)
Up on a mountain, standing before a transfigured Jesus, Peter is thrown into a kind of spiritual confusion. Overwhelmed by the brilliance and holiness of Jesus, together with Moses and Elijah, the disciple offers to do something which, knowing Peter, is not surprising. Knowing Jesus, though, it’s absurd.
“Rabbi,” he says, I like being here. Let’s just stay, and I’ll build each of us a tiny house.
The story of the Transfiguration illustrates one of the fundamental tensions in the Church—the tension between the call to be Jesus’ body in and for the world and the temptation to stuff him inside comprehensible structures and constraints.
When we read the stories of Jesus, we’re introduced to a man who constantly goes out of his way to call people to follow him in witnessing to love and creating purpose in a world rocked by isolation, sorrow, and fear. He relentlessly challenges his disciples to follow him in contemplative living—that is, a life in which the lines between prayer and service are all but erased.
Contemplative living was the guiding ethos of the early church, but within a few centuries, the Church lost sight of that. In the fourth century, Theodosius I made Christianity the imperial religion and, therefore, virtually synonymous with the state. And while Christians were no longer persecuted as they once were, church leaders began to teach that loyal citizenship of the realm, intellectual consent to prescribed dogma, and feeding the church coffers were more important in following Jesus than loving God, loving neighbor, and caring for the earth. The purpose of documents like the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds was to create a strict uniformity in the Church, and it wasn’t even for the Church’s sake. The creeds were written to create a monolithic population not to serve God so much as to stabilize the empire by making everyone as homogenous as possible. Discipleship of someone as humble, love-driven, and neighbor-focused as Jesus of Nazareth became a creed that could be recited in a single, deep breath.
From the collusion of Jewish leadership with Rome in the first century, to the corrupt papacy of medieval Europe, to the restrictive and violent fundamentalism not just of Christianity but of all religions in today’s highly combustible world, tiny house theology has sought status and security by bedding down with the ways and means of empires.
How humble, how awe-struck, how compassionate, how prophetic does one need to be if one’s god fits neatly inside these individualistic, square-cornered, reap-what-you-sow value systems? Tiny house theology became orthodoxy in Christianity because it’s comfortable, but it sparks more impassioned conversation around carpet care than missions. It shapes a passive, go-to-heaven-when-I-die ethos rather than a grateful, servant-hearted involvement with the kingdom of God on earth. It allows congregations to look monochromatic in a Kodachrome Creation. Tiny house theology is, in part, why many people, especially younger generations, are fleeing what they see as a contentious, exclusive, self-serving, and irrelevant institution.
One of my own weekly struggles with tiny house theology is choosing hymns. So much of the doctrine in our hymnody proclaims a god who actually became powerless to love the Creation, and had to be made able to love us again through the brutal and bloody death of an innocent scapegoat. And when that’s the god we worship, it’s no wonder we treat each other the ways we often do. Many hymns also have us fluttering our eyes at a diaphanous Jesus who waits to welcome us into the “Sweet By and By.” While logical, rational, and kind of cozy, these gods engulf us in the smallnesses of retributive justice and superficial piety.
Now, I am aware that we live in a chaotic and frightening world. And we call this place a “sanctuary.”
We come here seeking peace and reassurance.
We come here to be reminded that we’re not alone in the universe.
We come here to celebrate that timeless Spirit we call God who loves us, redeems our suffering, and gives meaning to life.
We gather to hear the music, the words, and the silence that grounds us in God’s good Creation and releases us from the crushing gravity of life in a broken world.
We come here to share each other’s awe, and wonder, and love of God, and to be sent forth renewed and empowered for grateful and joyful service.
Here, in this sanctuary, in the company of Jesus and a “great cloud of witnesses,” (Hebrews 12:1) God’s voice affirms our faith, saying, Yes! “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
That’s why we’re here: To listen to Jesus. And Jesus says, Follow me. Not: Follow protocols.
He says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9:35) Not: Sit here in pious compliance for an hour, then go joke about beating the Baptists to the buffet.
Jesus says, When you care for those who are naked, hungry, thirsty, sick, and imprisoned, you are caring for me. (Matthew 25:40) Not: When you look right, act right, and don’t rock the boat, you make me proud.
He also says, “In my Father’s house are many mansions…” (John 14:2) Not: Build yourself a tiny house.
Jonesborough Presbyterian has about a hundred and eighty people on its roll. Anywhere from ninety to a hundred and ten people are here on a normal Sunday. While we are not, thank God, a megachurch, and while there’s always room for more, we don’t do God or ourselves any favors by dismissing Jonesborough Presbyterian as some quaint, “little church.” We’ are a mission outpost in the worldwide Body of Christ! We don’t exist for our own sake. And as Presbyterians, we’re not a tiny house denomination. We’re part of a diverse, connectional, relational community. What any one Presbyterian church does is done on behalf of the wider church. That’s why the PC(USA) doesn’t send out “missionaries.” We send out “mission co-workers,” men, women, and families whose work around the globe is our work, too. God hasn’t called you and me to labor in Haiti, Brazil, Malawi, Iraq, or Bangladesh, but we are co-workers with those whom God has spoken to, called, and sent down those other sides of the mountain. We’re stationed here, but we’re part of a vibrant, planetary body reaching out anywhere and everywhere that God’s beautiful and beloved Creation cries out for help.
By the same token, those of us who don’t personally participate in Family Promise, or the shawl ministry, or the food pantry, or Loaves and Fishes, or the DRC are still present through other members of this congregation who do.
At the Transfiguration, God, for whom a tiny house is a subatomic particle, calls us to “Listen to [Jesus].”
Listen to him! And he will open you to the suffering around you and move you to speak and act so that you become an instrument of God’s redemption and peace.
Listen to him! And you will find him in the midst of your own suffering and struggle.
Listen to him! And your very life will reveal your ministry to you.
Listen to him! says God.
And Jesus says, “Follow me.”