A Parable of the Flat Tire

Delivered at All Souls Church, Okinawa, Japan

And lo, a not-so-young man from the Northern lands of the Americas was riding his new electric bike by the island of Okinawa’s western sea wall. And finding a dirt path to the water through a construction site, he thought twice about riding through the soft sand, fearing the hidden pestilence of buried nails. But lo, the not-so-smart man from the Northern lands took the perilous path, and verily, a nail found its way into his tire, and the man was stranded on that very seawall miles from home. While pushing his bike back to his home village, a loud race car with an illegal exhaust drove past, and the not-so-smart-OR-young man grimaced at it loudness, shooting scornful arrows of judgement from his eyes. And as the car turned in a fast arc, the man readied himself for an altercation with this Philistine of a driver. Yet, as the car stopped and the driver rolled down his window, instead of asking about the scorn and judgement, the driver offered the poor man a ride back to his village, and offered his fancy leather upholstered back seat upon which to rest the broken bike. And the traveler was humbled and they went on their way.”

True story. Boy do those fast cars irritate me. And this experience reminded me of something my supervisor said when I was doing a residency as a hospital chaplain many years ago. One of our chaplain interns asked him: “What do you do when the person you are counseling says horrible things, or insults your faith? Or isn’t a believer?”

The supervisor leaned in–long pause–and said without explanation: “I let them be Jesus for me.”

And if they’re not Christian?

“I let them be Jesus for me.”

If they yell at me to get out?

“I let them be Jesus for me.”

If they drive an obnoxious car that is an affront to all that is peaceful and holy? [OK… I added this one.]

“I let them be Jesus for me.”

In other words, when you’re the one reacting with judgement, expectation, or inflated self-righteousness, let the other be the teacher, rabbi, master—even if the lesson they offer is uncomfortable or painful.

These moments where you let the “other” be Jesus for you can be small or large. They might be a minor annoyance, when someone’s car is too loud for your sensitive sensibilities, and you let their loudness be the Christ message. “Hey buddy,” Christ says. “Love transfigures annoyance.”

These moments might be large, like the things we read about in the newspaper with all those politicians doing outrageous stuff. And you let their audacious affront to everything you hold dear be the Christ message. “For with God all things are possible,” Christ says. “Love transfigures evil.”

These moments might be heart breaking, like the violence we see escalating around the world. “Hold the world in an image of Love,” Christ says. “Even when it’s all you can do.”

Who told you the path of Love was going to be easy saunter?

Nope. We’ve got to love those SOFA members who saw off their mufflers to attach noise amplifiers instead. Every time I hear one of those now, I think of that Christ-like dude who turned around his car to offer me a ride. To offer his back seat, upholstered in leather, for my bike. Man, I don’t want to have those kind thoughts about people who weld illegal mufflers on their cars just to annoy me. In fact, my neighbor has two cars with those mufflers, so every morning Jesus comes calling, “vroom vroom—who ya going to love today? People who are easy to love? Or me with the loud car, who might offer you a ride out of the kindness of my heart. Vroom Vroom.”

2. The Transfiguration

What does this have to do with the transfiguration in our Gospel reading today? This scripture happens twice in the lectionary, so it must be important. It’s the story where Jesus takes a few of his disciples up on the mountain, there’s a dazzling lightshow, and artists for hundreds of years are inspired to paint dazzling…lightshows. The face shining bright. The clouds opening up. Moses and Elijah coming out of retirement for a chat. God saying those memorable words: “Behold my son in whom I am well pleased.”

A hint at where I’m going with this? It’s not about the lightshow.

The word transfigure means to change something from ordinary to beautiful, from mundane to transcendent.

This is the last week of the Season of Epiphany, Lent begins next week, and I just realized that I got to preach here on the first Sunday of the season—what a treat… for me. But it lets me come full circle on this idea of radical love that requires us not just to believe, but to act. For Matthew, the Transfiguration is the epitome of epiphany stories since it reveals Jesus as a prophet alongside or even above the greatest prophets, and even more, as God’s beloved child.

In the immediately preceding passages, Jesus has just articulated what may be his most difficult teaching: that he must suffer, die, and rise again — and anyone who wishes to follow him must “deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Mt 16:24). The Transfiguration’s light, then, acts as a kind of reassurance that even though we are now turning toward Golgotha and descending the valley of death’s shadow, fear not!

Message one of the Transfiguration: Keep this astonishing, mysterious mountaintop story in mind as we go. It will be hope in the darkness, and a vision to guide your paths.

Message two: Now that you’ve seen who Jesus really is, and have been told to tell no one, what are you going to do?

Message three: If Jesus is a beloved child of God, so are you. You are part of this new vision of divinity being unfolded.

Visions in the Bible are a primary form of wisdom communication. Like dreams, they usually need interpretation.

Here is an orthodox, conservative interpretation my Evangelical colleagues have shared with me. Essential to being a Christian, they share, is not just believing this story happened, but knowing it is true. Having no doubts. In this orthodox view, loving the story and letting it shape your faith isn’t enough—your brain has to accept it as fact. For me, this emphasizes the wrong end of belief. I tend to make a distinction between belief and knowledge. In my faith, I can believe a story is true (the story’s meaning, its importance, its application to my life, its real possibility of being manifest then and now) without knowing that if a camera were rolling on that mountaintop, the drama would unfold exactly as handed down to us in words. To me, that limits the experience and power of religious imagination to fully channel God’s message. It boxes us in. And boxes others out. That’s not my Jesus.

As a religious progressive, I interpret the story as more than merely factual. It can impact our lives with the depth than only mystery evokes. It can have us ruminating over meanings that transcend the words. It can be more than true, it can be real.

3. The transient and the permanent

The great 19th century preacher and abolitionist Theodore Parker explained it perfectly in his sermon “The Transient and the Permanent in Christianity.” Back then they would publish prominent sermons in the Sunday paper, and this sermon got Parker banned from every orthodox pulpit in New England, which was fine for Parker. After all, his ideas were so popular his church couldn’t hold all the people flocking to hear Parker speak, so they rented out the Boston Music Hall each Sunday and filled it with some 3,000 congregants.

In his sermon, Parker calls mere belief, or blind faith, in the literal miracles of the Bible the transient aspects of Christianity. He said they are fleeting. Why? Because they rely on human interpretation and dogma, they hold us weakly. We either know they happened or we dismiss them. We’re either a believer or we are lost. We either adhere to a particular doctrine or we are left behind.

Do you know how many young people today are leaving the church behind because they don’t find its interpretations relevant to their lives?

I don’t ask this rhetorically. According to 2022 Survey on American Life, more than one-third of Generation Z are religiously unaffiliated. This doesn’t just mean they skip church; it means they have no connection to religion whatsoever. For Millennials, the number of unaffiliated is 29 percent, and for my Generation X it’s 25 percent. By contrast, four out of five baby boomers and almost 90 percent of the silent generation report being religious. This stems a lot from the fact that younger generations didn’t have church as part of their lives growing up. Less than half of millennials and Gen Zers say they attended church regularly as children. Half.

I don’t have statistics on Japanese affiliations with shrines, temples, or indigenous churches. It’d make a great coffee hour conversation to hear your perspectives on Japanese religious life.

For Parker, the permanent aspects of Christianity are what the miracles of the Bible teach us to do—and where we as Christians can have the most impact on the lives of others. I would add, these permanent aspects of faith are going to be more interesting to all those unaffiliated. Jesus’ teachings led Parker to free slaves, empower women, fight for sanitation and other human rights, and decry religious hypocrisy. In the transfiguration story, the permanent aspects of Christianity aren’t its staging or lightshow. I can just see it now: “OK… Moses, you stand there. And Elijah, I need a little more emotion… and ‘can I get some more special effects on God’s entrance?’” The essential aspects of the story are Jesus’ love for his disciples and the way that divine encounter inspired them forward in their ministries. Jesus knows his death is going to break their hearts; he doesn’t want it to break their souls. Jesus usually went up to the mountain to pray alone. This time he takes three beloved friends with him. He wants to share an experience that will give them hope and allow them to carry, in secret for a while, a vision that will transform the world with his love. The vision isn’t the point. It’s pretty darn cool. But it’s the act of Love surrounding this mysterious moment that demands we follow in practice. I mean, I’m not going to go up to a mountain with friends and know a supernatural lightshow is going to dazzle them. Jesus did. I’m not Jesus. But I am Bret. And I know what the story teaches me. Follow the master up the mountain, love people enough to care about bringing them on the journey, share Love with them, and stay awake and alert for the miracles.

Like when I’m walking down the street and grimace at a loud car, and then Love rolls down its window and invites me to a Christ lesson in humility and grace. That dude in the fast car, like Jesus, invited me up the mountain, or into his car, for a miracle moment. A greasy bike on my nice leather seats? No way. That was a miracle. That was the permanent aspect of Christianity inviting me to be better, more loving, more attuned to the hard miracles of love all around us.

Who might Jesus be for you this week?

Someone serving you a meal at Cocos?

Someone driving a loud car?

Someone who throws love your way when you didn’t ask for or even deserve it?

Even someone who’s pain, suffering or anger reminds you of your mission to return love for hate and compassion for rejection?

Of course, all this begs the question, how will you bring Christ into the lives of others this week?

So? How will you bring Christ into the lives of other this week?


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