2.19.23 Transfiguration Sunday Sermon Summary "What Changed?"
Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell the story of the Transfiguration. The last Sunday of the Season of Epiphany, the last Sunday before Lent begins is Transfiguration Sunday and so churches that follow the lectionary year, and even many churches that don't, very often hear this story. I actually touched on it a the beginning of our last series as we talked about knowing Christ. Jesus transfigured. Jesus’ Divinity revealed and yet… what changed? There's nothing in this story that we and even the disciples don't already know. This is the messiah! God's chosen one! There's aomething about This scene though… the light, the wonder, Peter's desire to stay in that moment: “let us build three booths” let's worship God and pray… let us be here instead of back there where it's hard, where life is painful and difficult and confusing. I shared during our Epiphany series the privilege I had to journey to Mount Tabor, the traditional site in Galilee of the Transfiguration. And I talked about the road to get to the top where the church has been built - perhaps ironically the church has three sections. The center Cathedral is an image of Christ and then side chapels for Moses and Elijah… Maybe we as the church did get stuck there instead of coming back down… but I mainly use that as an illustration that the best path is not always a straight path. We are not called to a simple path - wandering back and forth the switchbacks enable us to get up the mountain easily but not in a straight or simple line. The rules sometimes are not cut and dried but something that we have to discern and journey.
We talked throughout epiphany of the Magi and of their journey… of their willingness to stretch themselves, to get out of their comfort zone, to leave their homes for an uncertain destination and then - having found the one they sought, bearing witness to the light. to what they see God doing in the world. They recognize that they have almost been part of Herod’s plot and so they go home by another way. They change. They turn.
I started the service with another mountaintop experience. One of two places in the Old Testament where the giving of the Ten Commandments is told. Here it's just the tablets given. It's the first telling. Moses and the leadership are called to the mountain. They set up an altar (in the part before what we read) they worship God, and then Moses and Joshua were called farther, and then only Moses can come clear up the mountain to receive the teaching of the Lord. At this point they have been wandering the wilderness after escaping Egypt for about three or four months. They've escaped from those who enslaved them, those who are trying to harm and control them. God has parted the Red Sea, God has brought them to this place. God calls their leader Moses up the mountain. To the people who have stayed in the plain, the mountain shows as like fire and Moses is there for 40 days and while he's there he encounters the presence of God. God writes the Commandments on the tablet. This is how my people are to live. Because I am your God, because you are my people, these are the things you will and will not do.
But in that 40 days, having just experienced the miracle of escaping Egypt, having just experienced the miracle of crossing the Red Sea, having seen the power of God. Having been told by Moses that God has called him up the mountain, the leaders having been told to stay there - plans made for the just organization of the society and resolving disputes. Aaron and Hur are still there, things will continue to run as we have been running them… but in that mere forty days the Israelites grow impatient as God is teaching Moses on the mountain. Not only does he carve the tablets, but he gives instructions for the Tabernacle and a couple chapters worth of details of how Moses is to run the people and one of those details is to gather an offering the gold of the people, that they might build the Tabernacle to worship God.. Even as that scene is playing out, in the valley the people have already forgotten and they're looking for something concrete, something solid. “Aaron take our gold build Gods for us that we can follow because we don't know what's going on up there! We think God took Moses away…” Fear, seeking control, forgetting God’s presence and guidance already. Still at the foot of the mountain… now maybe the fire has dimmed… maybe they legitimately think yeah God must have taken Moses we're on our own… but how quickly we lose sight of the prior miracle demanding the next one. It's a difficult story and God is depicted in these stories and ways that I frankly don't agree with in some places. There is violence and destruction and retribution… yet God is also depicted as deeply caring for his people, desiring relationship… which is why I'm having us read another text from Matthew on this Transfiguration Sunday.
I think it's too easy to say Jesus is divine, there was this miraculous thing that happened… We, like the Israelites, very quickly turn from those mountaintop moments and demand the next sign. In Matthew 12, Jesus is in dispute with the Pharisees. We heard that he cites David going back to the Old Testament, they're accusing Jesus of wrongdoing and he cites the great King David, the hero of the Old Testament story. “Did you not hear what David did when he was fleeing from Saul? He enters into the holy place, the Tabernacle. At that point he ate the showbread, the consecrated bread, the holy bread. There is extensive instruction on what can and cannot be done with that bread in the law. It's held holy as it's only for the priest during the rituals and then that which is left over must be burned. It is not for others, not even David and yet in a time of need David goes and it is unclear even to this day to our Jewish brothers and sisters whether David did the right thing or not, its extensively debated - but David acted in God's presence. He sustained himself and those who were with him as he fled Saul. It's one of those mysteries, one of those wrestling points in the Hebrew tradition. Jesus cites that story and applies it to what's going on in his presence, in his ministry and then he quotes another prophet. He quotes Hosea “if you had understood I desire Mercy not sacrifice, you wouldn't have accused us.” He's turning the teaching, the foundational stories of Israel, back on his accusers, those who lead Israel. The quote from Hosea goes on I desire Mercy not sacrifice… the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.” We talked about that in our last series - to know God is not just an intellectual assent - it's a relationship! A lifelong relationship. It is time spent, ritual is important but ritual for its own sake is not. If we go through the motions - and the Lord knows I went through the motions for a large segment of my life - all we're doing is going through the motions, the rituals are empty. Even Holy Communion, one of my points of repentance is my in my life is remembering being excited on communion Sunday because we got a snack! No… it's not a smack… the body and blood of Christ, present among us! The ritual is important, but the ritual is only meaningful if we see beyond the ritual. If we see the relationship. If we enter into the relationship. If we are changed by the relationship!
So we have this dispute and then Jesus goes into their synagogue did you hear that in Matthew the split has happened already “their” synagogue - the one they control, Jesus goes into their synagogue and there was a man there with a withered hand. We don't know why. We don't know what's wrong with his hand. Could have been injured in an accident, could be a birth defect. We don't know - doesn't even really matter. And one of the reasons this is one of my favorite healing stories is this is not a crisis. This man's hand has evidently been like this for some time and the Pharisees are actually right here - we're not to work on Sundays., It's been very clear - that tablet God inscribed for Moses it says thou shall keep the Sabbath Holy. And work - especially work that is not crucially necessary - not done on the Sabbath.
Jesus says to the man stretch out your hand and it is made whole and he says to the leaders of the synagogue to the Sadducees and the Pharisees “you hypocrites. If you have one sheep and it falls in a pit on the Sabbath don't you pull it out?” That's kind of an emergency isn't it? Maybe there's an exception there… the priests who work on the Sabbath are they violating the Sabbath? No because that's their role, we've worked out these exceptions, these details. Jesus is extending them. Doing good is lawful… it's not as obvious here as it is other places. Sometimes he makes it explicit – “you have heard it said, but I say to you thou shall not murder but if you have anger in your heart.” Jesus” ups the ante. Jesus extends. Jesus demonstrates that ultimately all we can rely on is God's grace and Jesus demonstrates God's grace.
God's desire for wholeness for his sheep. All of us. God's desire that ritual not become legalistic - there are good reasons to draw lines and say we do not work on the Sabbath. Jesus is not saying the Sabbath doesn't matter. Jesus models rest and prayer and Jesus is saying what is the Sabbath about. If you keep Sabbath - what changes? How does it change your life? How does it build your community? How does it build your relationship with God? How does it help you to love your neighbor as yourself, to love God, to do no harm, to do good? The Sabbath should change us - not just be something we do an hour on Sunday but a pattern of Life, of rest and play and work - all of which all of which brings glory to God and health and wholeness and Justice to others. Of course we should pull the Sheep out of the pit - of course we should but we shouldn't just make exceptions for ourselves or what we identify as our needs.. we should do justice.
Jesus goes on, again citing the Old Testament, in this case Isaiah “here is my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon Him and He will Proclaim Justice to the Gentiles.” Justice to them, to the others, to those outside of our rules and our rituals and our understanding and what will the servant be like? He will be so gentle that he won't extinguish a flickering wick, a glowing ember. Do you know how simple it is to extinguish a flickering wick, a glowing wick …that last Ember of flame will not be extinguished or a bent reed broken. A reed that is already bruised and broken he will not destroy. He will not pluck. I talked last week a little bit about the stoles that are on the altar and the process I went through to achieve ordination, to finish the interviews and the education, to jump through all the hoops. Sometimes we get a little full of ourselves when we accomplish things like that and the gift that Mark Conard gave me of the blue stole - made by friends of his in Zimbabwe praying over me by name as my process continued to unfold. That for me was an epiphany moment - that gift shed light on all I had been doing and why I had been doing it. Ithelped me to re-encounter the mystery that had first called me to ordination, that sometimes we get oh we get impatient, we lose sight of the Red Sea and the Fire on the Mountain and we make it about ourselves and our understanding. Mark brought me back to mystery and Holiness and service.
I have another moment like that. As I was driving to Seminary… I went to Saint Paul School of Theology which then was on Truman road almost Independence… I was in Wichita and so every week… every week!... three and a half hours up… three and a half hours back through the Flint Hills. I had grown to despise the Flint Hills. I was so sick of that road… the first couple of years it had been exciting and I'd seen new things and I'd seen the beauty and I stopped at a particular bridge, a cattle crossing, and I took photos of this same field over and over because every week was a little different. The miracle of creation, the light and the movement, rain and snow and the green of sprint, the burning of the crops… and I had been enthralled with it. And then it got to be so routine and I just want to be there and be done with this and I hated the Flint Hills.
I finally, in my third year, I got a carpool going with some other folks through Wichita and because I had been doing it so long and because one of them preferred to drive, I got to ride in the back seat. But it became a game.. two of my friends on the front seat and they would point out off the highway some random thing - a broken tree or the back of a weathered billboard that was falling down and they'd get my attention from the book I was reading or whatever and say look at that, where are we? and I’d go we're 23 miles out of Ottawa… “How do you know that?” “I've been doing this for three years… it never changes.” I'd forgotten. The Wonder of how it changed, how beautiful it was… I'd forgotten and when I realized that. One week I realized I had to change and so I made a point one week there was a week that I needed to drive myself… some things were going on I couldn't do the carpool. And so that week I drove a different route, slower, on purpose and on the way back I went way out of my way and I stopped at the Tall Grass Nature Preserve and I spent a couple hours walking in the Flint Hills. Reminding myself how incredibly miraculously, beautiful that place is. Now the day I did it was gray and overcast and the grasses were all dead. Spring had not yet come. The wind was a little cold… and it was beautiful - because I had eyes to see the beauty. To remind myself of how it changes and why it changes and God's presence in the mountaintops and the valleys and in the dead grasses at rest, taking sabbath, preparing to renew, just as God is present in the flowering of spring. That's what Jesus is like… noticing the ember, the flickering wick, the beauty even of the broken reed. Seeing beauty in these things that are so easy to overlook.
I don't know if you've heard about this, it's starting to make national news but there is, at Asbury College a - an outpouring they would prefer to call it. Now this is not the first time this has happened., They are a conservative Wesleyan College, in 1970 there was a big outpouring there a revival and I'll admit many of us even within Wesleyan circles are a little uncomfortable with this… and yet I have friends, people I respect. I may or may not have disagreements with them on particular things, but they went there or they are now serving in the area and they've been to this outpouring they've been in Hughes Chapel and one of them in particular, and he's a scientist, he's a very rational guy and he about three days into… this it's been going on for over a week now… students from this college and the surrounding area and all over the place sitting in Hughes Chapel, worshiping and singing and praying. He said “I walked in and I sat down. I found a spot and about an hour later, I came to myself. He said I realized where I was sitting and what time it was and how long I'd been there and I had no conscious awareness of the hour I'd spent … but I was filled with this peace and this presence and I didn't want to leave. I wanted to stay there forever, but I realize there's a line outside and there's work that needs to be done and there are other people that need to experience this and so I spent some time in prayer and I sang a couple more songs and I got up and I made my way out.” and for the last several days he's been outside, being one of the people that helps run security and sanitation and do all the work that needs to be done that others might have this experience. Something is happening! Now this is the first time a Wesleyan Revival like this has happened in the internet age, in the social media age, and so it's spreading rapidly around the world and there are, of course dissenters and doubters… We need to realize in our comfort zone and our upper middle class way of doing Church in Fort Scott Kansas here at First that this is part of our own legacy Wesleyans. Methodist, well into the 19th century in this country, were known as enthusiasts - we had those rowdy camp meetings. We talked about faith healing. We had people who bore witness of transfigurative experiences in their lives… and there have always been doubters and there have always been con artists and there have always been people that tried to manipulate these kinds of things but this is part of our history as Methodist. As uncomfortable as many of us in the room might be with that kind of witness, the Pentecostal movement actually emerged out of a Methodist camp meeting. The Spirit fell upon people. We have different ways and I'm not saying that in order to have real faith you have to have this kind of experience - but we do have to have moments where we draw closer to God. Whether it's in crowded auditoriums or camp meetings or just privately as we're reading Scripture or singing a song or remembering a moment from worship. That's when a lot of mine happen - I remember something that happened in worship, something somebody said, the look on somebody's face - recognizing that they experienced the presence of God. Often through something I was privileged to help create space for. Or a hymn or an Anthem will strike me in a particular way, often days later Well one of the things I really began to appreciate when the bishop moved me to Pretty Prairie and even here in Fort Scott, is how quiet small towns are, as opposed to the constant noise that was just part of my life in Wichita. Quiet and I can notice individual sounds instead of just noise
One of the most compelling arguments against this kind of outpouring, this kind of Revival - why God would do that at a seminary in College in Kentucky but not stop the earthquake in Turkey and Syria? Where is God then? It’s a powerful critique. Why doesn't God stop bad things from happening and the best answer I've ever come up with or best response - it's not an answer - I don't know why God doesn't stop the bad things from happening, the accidents and the earthquakes and the tornadoes and the fires and the cancers… why doesn't God stop these things and yet we all know people who believe they have been touched by the hand of God and escaped from some disaster or some scare, experienced healing beyond description. Why does it seem so arbitrary? The best response I've ever come up with is Mr Rogers response - his mother is saying “look for the helpers” Look for those who run in, those who are not overwhelmed by the situation but find ways to help, to serve, to be better. Why doesn't God stop the angry toung ,an that decides to act out and harm others? I don't know - but I believe God is active in the world. I believe there are miracles present. Sometimes, especially around funerals, we will so much demand or wish for one more miracle. Why that disease couldn't have been healed. Why that surgery couldn't have been successful? One more miracle - we forget all the miracles that made even that moment possible. The miracle that life is itself, that anything exists. The miracle of relationship, of communication. and heartache and joy the knowledge of the finitude of life that calls us to make every moment that much more precious - to notice the beauty even on gray overcast, dead grass kinds of days. To be intentional about noticing those miracles and then living them out and sharing them with others. God doesn't stop the bad things from happening - God is with us through them.
One of the testimonies that I've heard most from the people that I know that have been a part of this outpouring at Asbury is that their minds are turned to repentance… and I will admit I have a list of things I would like them to repent for,…, and I am aware that the moment I go there I'm making it about rules and my sense of control, instead of what God is doing and I back up intentionally and I listen. One of the things they have repeatedly spoken of and I don't know if this is because it was part of a sermon or a scripture reading or what has led so many people I know to the same moment, but they talk about Job's sense of wonder at the end of that book. “I had heard of you with my ears but now I see you with my eyes. I have experienced you in your presence and I withdraw my complaints, because what I really wanted even, though I didn't know it, what I really wanted was to know you more fully .” and somehow in ways I still don't have language for it makes everything else all right. It doesn't mean God wills it or desires an earthquake or cancer or a car accident. I don't believe God does those things. I think God wants wholeness. I also believe God created a fragile and precious Earth and calls us to serve one another and that the wind currents that sometimes get out of hand and the tectonic action that sometimes causes destruction are necessary to the delicate balance of life, to the change of seasons where dead grasses suddenly bloom with flowers. It all fits together - it's not enough for me to say God's will is above my will - but it is enough to me for me to say that God is with us.
So I want to go back to that Transfiguration story. James and Peter and John are invited up the mountain. Jesus is talking with Moses and Elijah - we're not told what they're talking about but we are we are told that Jesus tells the disciples we have to come back down the mountain. We can't stay here… and the story continues when they came to the crowd a man came to him and knelt before him and said “Lord, have mercy on my son” for he has seizures and he suffers terribly he often falls into the fire and often into the water. I brought him to your disciples but they could not cure him.
We just saw Jesus revealed as fully divine – here, I think we see Jesus revealed again as human too, as understanding what it is to be human. He's frustrated. He's angry. The disciples who just a chapter ago he gave power to and sent out to teach and to heal, can't do it.
“You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you? Jesus, too, wants to stay on the ,ountaintop. One of my favorite theologians says the conversation Jesus just had with Moses and Elijah is about the cross and the journey that he is on. The journey he has been on since the temptation stories that we will talk about next week. Jesus knows where his path is leading and his human side doesn't like it “Lord, let this cup pass from me, yet thy will not my will.”
“Bring him to me,” he says… and Jesus rebuked the demon and it came out of him. The boy was cured instantly. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said “why could we not cast it out?” I have a confession to make here. I really, really prefer to read Mark's version of the story. I really prefer Mark's story because in Mark's story Jesus’ response is “this kind comes out only through prayer.” I feel let off the hook – Oh, sure, you just need to pray more. You haven't been doing the rituals quite right. Pray more and you'll have it…, I just need to practice… it seems manageable. But Matthew doesn't tell that story… Matthew doesn't let me off the hook Matthew says “because of your little faith for truly I tell you if you had the faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain: move from here to there and it will move and nothing will be impossible for you.” And we are filled with self-importance and power and if I had just that much… oh Jesus give me that much faith and I'll rearrange the world for good. All of that stuff I don't like, I will get rid of!
I don't think that's what Jesus is saying here and I don't think Jesus is saying that because the very next words as his disciples gather again, Jesus says to them “the Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands and they will kill him and on the third day he will be raised” and they were greatly distressed. Did they forget that if they just had that much faith… or are we arguing that Jesus doesn't have that much faith? That he can't stop this? But this is the path that he's been on - it's not about power and control. it's not even about how much faith we have - remembering that faith is ultimately a gift, an outpouring of the Spirit that we are gifted differently - that we have different talents, that we are not all called to be the same in the body of Christ. This journey towards the cross is necessary. “Thy will not, my will.”
I wrestled with this story for a long time. I want that kind of power. I want to undo things that I think are wrong… but I realized if I had that kind of power, I'd be dangerous and destructive Very often the systems that we put in place to enact justice wind up becoming so rigid that they create Injustice. We become inflexible. We become full of ourselves. We need to be reminded that it's not all about us. We need to be reminded that ultimately it is about Jesus’ faith and God's power and that we are participants in it. That we are not the Messiah. That we are not the one in control.
That really, for me, is what Lent is about. It's not about beating ourselves up or saying that we're not worthy. It's about participating in our finitude, about recognizing that we are not in control, that we do not yet see everything, tut that God is with us even to death. Even death on a cross. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. We want one more miracle. We are called to know that life itself is the miracle. That the Transfiguration of a system of torture and control into a symbol of hope for all people is the miracle. We are called to be servants. To get out of our comfort zone. To recognize how Christ serves. To be Christ-like. To recognize how we are dependent on being connected to the vine. That all we do is ultimately what Christ enables us to do and that our call is to be fruitful with the gifts we have been given in the time and place we are we are called. To stretch out our hand. To be made whole. To recognize the miracle of God's presence at all times, in all places. That's what I believe. Thanks be to God. Amen!