Until the Day Dawns: Sermon by Laura, 3.2.14 Transfiguration A

Scripture Readings: Matthew 17:1-9, 2 Peter 1:16-21

“Do not be afraid,” Jesus says to the disciples at the closing of their high mountain experience.  These are familiar words in the Gospels. Angels often use them, as surprising God-encounters unfold. “Do not be afraid,” Gabriel tells Mary, announcing her pregnancy; “Do not be afraid,” the angel chorus tells shepherds upon the eve of the Messiah’s birth. “Do not be afraid,” says an angel of the Lord at the end of Matthew’s story, to women who encounter an empty tomb.[i]

“Do not be afraid”: those words contain both comfort and command. We might hear in them an assurance that what seems fearful is not truly a threat. They could also be a command for us to loosen our stranglehold on our current perceptions and shed the paralysis of fear, that we may take present and future action in alignment with God’s direction.

But it’s interesting to me that they are not spoken until the end of today’s story. Certainly the whole Transfiguration might be considered a hair-raising experience! It exemplifies Twentieth Century religious thinker Rudolph Otto’s idea of the “numinous,” an experience he thought undergirded all religions, for which he used the Latin phrase, “mysterium tremendum et fascinan. It sounds like something Harry Potter shouts waving a wand, but it’s meant to describe the uncanny experience of something “wholly other” and frighteningly powerful, nonetheless draws our fascination. [ii]

In the Transfiguration, there is mysterium on the high mountain, a stand-in for every holy mountain in scripture. Something “wholly other” is revealed when Jesus’ face and clothing shine with incendiary light, and as he confers with Moses and Elijah, the heroes of scripture, the Law and the Prophets personified. Nothing in the disciples’ reason or experience could have prepared them to be eyewitnesses at this moment.

But fear doesn’t seem to enter in until the voice from the bright cloud announces “This is my Beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased; listen to him!” Tremendum, indeed. The reverberation of that voice must have caused avalanches continents away, so of course the disciples fall to the ground. But I don’t think it’s only the magnitude of sheer power that makes them tremble. It’s what the voice is saying.

“Listen to him!” It’s another phrase with both comfort and command. There is a confirmation in it, an affirmation that Jesus is the One they’ve been waiting for. But there is also an imperative, reminding us what we’ve heard Jesus say and telling us to pay attention.

Just previously, in Matthew 16, Jesus had begun to teach that the Messiah must go to Jerusalem, suffer, and be killed, to be raised on the third day. “God forbid it,” Peter responded, rejecting this plan, but then Jesus rebuked him in the strongest terms, and said “If any want to become my followers, them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

For six days, these words and their implications must have churned within the disciples, implications not only for their beloved teacher, but also for the disciples themselves. At the very least, they rule out evicting the Roman oppressors alongside a conquering hero. And no one who had actually seen Roman crosses could have any illusions that Jesus meant an abstract path of enlightenment. But the desire to deny Jesus’ words lingers. Surely the Way of the Cross could not really be God’s intention for the Messiah, the Promised One of Israel?

Last week I went to George Fox Seminary in Portland for the “Face-to-Face” portion of online coursework I’m currently undertaking. I’d been warned that the “Christian Ministry for Reconciliation” class would be emotionally intense, and it was. Day 1 began with the challenging topic of racial reconciliation; day 2 was all about reconciliation between men and women; and day 3 we studied the messy but sometimes miraculous work of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Professor Laura Simmons did not want us holding any of these topics at an abstract, academic distance, and she led us into conversation in which we wrestled with our deepest feelings about our relationships with others, our hopes and fears, our grief and our longings.

Now, I must admit I had brushed off the warnings of emotional intensity, thinking myself prepared by various experiences. But I hadn’t counted on what would transpire in this group who had so recently been strangers to me. How Christ’s light would shine from the faces of my colleagues voicing their longing for a world in which their sons and daughters, no matter what their race or gender, would be equally respected and free from violence. How my heart would break anew, listening as people voiced the grief we all felt in confronting the painful realities of racism and sexism and our sinful complicity, our limitations, and our fear of change. Those were holy moments, when things were revealed to be “wholly other” than our former perceptions.

Arriving back home, I spent much of this past week frankly overwhelmed by a dizzying new level of awareness. I saw with new eyes the panorama of suffering in our world and how God redeems our relationships for grace and peace.  I wondered what changes in me this new awareness would make.

For us the cross is no longer an instrument of execution; but to take it up and walk Christ’s Way means following him, wholly and willingly entering into the darkest, messiest places, relationships, and experiences of life, carrying nothing but the light of Christ’s life within us. It may not mean our literal death, and let me be unequivocally clear that following Christ is not about passively submitting to abusive relationships! If you are in such a relationship, Christ wants to lead you to a place of peace and wholeness! No matter what, following Christ to that place is a messy journey, working through old patterns and stepping out in courageous faith, and the Way of the Cross takes us into risk, vulnerability, and uncertainty again and again. The Cross is the way Jesus closed the gap between us and God; it is the way we must go if we would minister in his name.

Still, my mind rejects it. Surely there’s a better way to hope and healing. Surely there’s an easier way!

Maybe that’s what Peter is longs for on the mountain. We like to fault him for thinking he can freeze-frame the moment or capture God in a box, but his impulse to build shrines actually comes from the Festival of Booths, Israel’s celebration of the Exodus, in which people build “booths” as remembrance of God’s mighty acts in the desert, when the bright cloud dwelt in the tent of meeting. This is a “ramped-up” version of the wonders in the wilderness, and Peter wants to be hospitable to the holy presence. Maybe he wants a stable way to carry it forward.[iii]

But Peter’s desire reminds me of folks in my group last week who wanted immediate solutions to the problems of racism or sexism. They sought to “fix” things without really coming to awareness of their personal stake in those issues. They sought to be agents of transformation without being themselves transformed.

I think our rush to “fix” multi-layered problems can be an effort to stay in control and manage the discomfort of risk, vulnerability, and uncertainty. Following the command to “listen” to Jesus is to be called away from quick fixes and enter a long, slow way, in which change starts with our own conversion.

This past week, pondering my own new awareness, I found myself face to the ground. I was in “child’s pose,” if you know yoga; like a small child, forehead to the floor, knees curled up underneath. It’s a good stretch for the back and shoulders! And it was a good position to contemplate fear of change—the disciples’ and my own.

It was also a good position from which to imagine the next part of the story, something we often miss: Jesus the Christ, the One in whom all the power of the universe has just shined forth, simply comes to each disciple and touches them. I love that detail! Before he says another word, Jesus touches: a gentle hand, warm, real, tangible, true.  It is a gesture which physically grounds the disciples, reconnects them as human beings in relationship with a fully human man who loves them. Only then does this One we’ve been told to heed say, “Get up and do not be afraid.”

“Do not be afraid”: there it is.  I think it comes here in the story, because it doesn’t so much speak to the mysterium tremendum as it does their fear of what may come in the journey ahead.  Let’s not kid ourselves: the way of the Cross is fearful. But to hear Jesus clearly, we need to listen to the words which precedes this “do not be afraid.” “Get up,” Jesus says, and it’s not simply a command to stand. Jesus is literally saying “Be raised;” he’s using the same word the angel will use with the women at the tomb at Jesus’ resurrection. “Do not be afraid…He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.”[iv]

“Get up; be raised.” These are resurrection words, my friends; “Do not be afraid” must be heard alongside that powerful hope. On the mountain we’ve gotten a glimpse of resurrection light, which lies through and beyond the Cross. We get up and follow Jesus into dark places, holding onto it, as 2Peter says, like a shining lamp, holding onto it until the day of resurrection dawns and the morning star rises in our hearts, trusting that suffering and death are not the end of the story. We are raised up from overwhelming fear and failure to new life and new possibilities we can scarcely imagine.

My friends, we are about to enter the Season of Lent in which we examine ourselves, our relationships with God and others. We ask to see how God has been displaced from the center of our lives, and we repent—we turn around—from destructive attitudes, habits and practices, so we may follow Christ anew, relying on the Holy Spirit’s guiding. Our hearts may be broken open with new awareness. How have we become resigned to a world of sin and violence? Where can we make amends?

These are hard questions, opening us to change which is never easy. But the grace of resurrection lights our way, as Jesus comes alongside us, touches us, and says, “Get up, and do not be afraid.” God is at work in the darkest places of our lives and our world, reconciling all things to Godself, transforming us first, so that as Beloved Children, we might shine forth and share the peace of Christ, the healing of all Creation, Have courage, friends; Be raised and Do not be afraid. Amen.


[i] Borrowing from David Lose’s summary: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3085

[iii] Feasting on the Gospels, Matthew, Vol 2., 65.

[iv] Matthew 27: 5-6

 

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“Listen to Him!” Sermon by Laura on Transfiguration Sunday B, 2.19.12

Dear Readers,

Our apologies for our neglect of this blog! We’ll do our best to post a bit more regularly in the future. At First Presbyterian Church, La Grande, OR we are now beginning a sermon series which focuses on various traditions of Christian Spiritual Formation Practices. Each week in Lent, we’ll be focusing on one of the traditions Richard J. Foster names in Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of Christian Faith. Yesterday, on Transfiguration Sunday, the sermon was an introduction to the series. Here it is:

Scriptures: Mark 9:2-10, Psalm 50:1-6

“If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say, ‘I am spiritual but not religious,’ then I might not be any wiser about what that means—but I would be richer…” so begins Barbara Brown Taylor’s reflection on everyday Christian practices in a book I highly recommend, An Altar in the World.  She continues, “I think I know what they mean by ‘religious.’ It is the ‘spiritual’ part that is harder to grasp….It may be the name for a longing for more meaning, more feeling, more connection, more life. When I hear people talk about spirituality, that seems to be what they are describing. They know there is more to life than what meets the eye. They have drawn close to this ‘More’ in nature, in love, in art, in grief. They would be happy for someone to teach them how to spend more time in the presence of this deeper reality, but when they visit the places where such knowledge is supposed to be found, they often find the rituals hollow and the language antique. Even religious people are vulnerable to this longing….”[i]

Taylor’s words strike a chord, don’t they? How many of us here—us “religious people”—long for the “more” she’s talking about? And how many of us here want to know how to spend more of our time in the purpose, presence, and power of the deeper reality which gives life meaning?

Today is Transfiguration Sunday. Transfiguration is a strange word, maybe one of those “antique” ones, and we rarely hear in our usual speech. It literally means to change figure or form, and it is a good word to consider in the transition space between the church season of Epiphany, in which we celebrate the surprising ways Christ’s light shines out of the darkness, and Lent (which begins on Wednesday) in which we examine that which hinders the full brilliance of Christ’s light in us.  It is a good time to consider our longings for “more,” God’s desire to complete us, and the opportunities God gives us to draw yet closer to him.

Now, the disciples were certainly longing for “more” from Jesus. They had seen some amazing things: people healed, demons rebuked, Jesus walking on water, thousands miraculously fed. Yet they longed for this man whom they believed to be God’s anointed one to pull out all the messianic stops and liberate their people from Roman oppression. Jesus has just begun teaching them that the Messiah must be rejected, suffer, be killed and be raised three days later. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” Jesus says, but his words fall of deaf ears.  They want a Messiah of power and glory, not the suffering Son of Man. Still, these fishermen who left their nets behind keep close to this one who said “Follow me.”

Up a high mountain, they are finally given the gift of “more.” Jesus was transfigured, his appearance radically changed, his clothing become dazzling white “such as no one on earth could bleach them.” I must admit it tickles me that Mark adds those words. I can’t help but imagine that Jesus has an “ancient Palestinian secret”! But despite the domestic, laundry imagery, there was nothing domesticated about this experience for the disciples. The brightness stung their eyes, and it triggered every story they’d ever heard about angelic messengers and every fear that went along with those stories. Everybody knew it was dangerous, or at the very least, life altering, to look upon God’s glory. Mark says “they were terrified.”

But if Jesus’ radiance were not enough, the disciples are given yet more. Moses and Elijah appear by his side, revealing that the same Spirit which rested upon Moses and Elijah also rests with Jesus. God’s power and glory is on full display for those with eyes to see it. What an overwhelming experience of “more”!

But is it enough? Peter’s response seems to indicate otherwise. As Jan Richardson puts it, “Faced with an event of overwhelming spiritual import, he responds at a physical level: Let me build something.”[ii] Maybe he was just so flabbergasted that he said the first thing that came to mind, but I think Peter’s words reflect desires we often have during spiritual experiences. Maybe the disciples want to freeze time and linger in the wonder, or maybe they are grasping for a “container” to define and stabilize the experience so that it can be fully absorbed. Or maybe they just don’t want Moses and Elijah to get away before they can ask them a few burning questions!

Do you know the difference between an idol and an icon? This has been a tricky question throughout church history. Ought we be permitted to make images which help us to “see” Christ?[iii]  Some have thought Christians should keep the Jewish ban on making graven images, because of the risk of idolatry. Others argued that, because Jesus is the image of God incarnate, images might now be permitted.[iv] The acceptable form of divine imagery came to be called “icons.” Where an idol is any object in which we try to “freeze” an experience of God, an icon is a picture by which our vision may be opened to experience the divine presence beyond the image. The only catch is that we must be taught to “see” through the window of the icon.

In the same way, I think there is a difference between “spiritual experience” in and of itself, and what I’ll be calling “Christian spiritual formation.” “Spiritual experience” is always elusive, always intangible; just a glimpse, just a foretaste. And the trouble with human beings is our insatiability. A foretaste of the divine can never be enough—we crave a full banquet, every night of the week. So, in our seeking after “more,” the danger is that we will just keep consuming so-called spiritual experiences, and, gluttonous for power and glory, we ultimately get sick on rich foods and perish from lack of true nourishment.

But the good news is that God loves us and wants for us the “life abundant,” so God provides rigorous opportunities to be shaped as vessels fit for Christ’s presence and power. For the disciples, Christian spiritual formation, is what begins when that cloud overshadows and envelops them on the mountain. With vision obscured, they can hear more clearly as God calls them back to their purpose: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” These words are not a new revelation. They simply instruct us to focus again on what we’ve already heard Jesus saying, and on what we will hear him say again: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”

Author Jan Richardson notes that the only other appearance of the word “overshadow” in the gospels comes in the angel Gabriel’s response to Mary, when she asks how it will be possible to give birth to the child she’s been asked to bear. Gabriel tells her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” [v] Connecting the Annunciation and the Transfiguration, Richardson writes, “Each tale reminds us that we cannot contain or confine God within man-made structures. When God shows up, God often appears in and through people: God goes not for architecture but for anatomy. Or, rather, God makes architecture of our anatomy: God seeks to make of us a dwelling, a habitation for the holy.”

Richardson’s insight helps us understand the goal of Christian spiritual formation: God wants to fulfill our longing for more light by making us bearers of Christ’s light to others! It also helps us understand why Jesus asked the disciples to keep quiet about the transfiguration, until after he had risen from the dead.  Like Mary, they need time for God’s vision to gestate within them.   For, while the transfiguration reveals the glory of Jesus, fully human, fully divine. A snapshot of that moment is not enough. There is yet more.  The full picture comes as we are opened to a long-term relationship with the divine beyond the image.

When the cloud passes, there is Jesus, standing there just as he’d been, in the travel-stained garments of the discipleship road, ready to lead us back down the mountain, right into the thick of human suffering and confusion, all the way to the cross, the resurrection, and beyond.

This Lent, Keith and I want to challenge you to seek more light, more meaning, more life, gaining a more complete picture of Jesus as you follow him down the mountain, and grow in your relationship with the divine beyond the image. I know that some of you have had “mountaintop experiences” which led you to a deeper longing to experience God in everyday life, and thus a deeper attentiveness in prayer and practice to the words and ways of Jesus Christ. Others of you have spoken of your struggles to find the time and space to live out your faith amidst the everyday chaos of our time. Wherever you are on the discipleship road, now is a great time to experiment anew as we delve together into the rich traditions of Christian spiritual formation practices.

We undertake this Lenten journey in the recognition that only God can transform us as Christ was transfigured, a gift of grace we cannot earn or merit; but also that God has given us instructions to help us place ourselves where we are available to his sanctifying grace. “Listen to him!” God tells us, and so we will listen, attending to the words and imitating the ways of Jesus our teacher, savior, Lord, and friend.

As we pursue these practices, and as we gather for conversations about the joys and struggles, let us pray for the courage to place our lives again in God’s hands, that he may shape us to bear forth yet more, yet more, of Christ’s startling light, the image of God and the image of true humanity. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

[i] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2009, xiii.