Thursday, March 6, 2014

Sermon -- March 2, 2014 -- Transfiguration Sunday

Note -- Due to technical difficulties, the regular audio recording of my sermon was not able to be posted to the St. Andrew website.  So in its place here is my written text.

Our first reading is from the Hebrew Bible. You remember how the people of Israel left Egypt; they were slaves for Pharaoh, who didn’t want to let them go. God rescued them from being slaves, and helped them escape by making a path through the Reed, or Red, Sea. The people of Israel have been in the wilderness for three months now, looking for the land God promised Moses. Moses has been listening to Yahweh, and has told the people the laws God told him. Most of the laws concern how to treat other people and how to administer justice, with special attention to the poor, the slaves, widows and children. The people obey the laws some of the time.

And now, Moses is invited to receive more instructions from God. Listen for the word of God as it is found in the book of Exodus, chapter 24:12-18.

Yahweh said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain and stay there and I’ll give you stone tablets and the law and the commandment, which I wrote for their instruction.” And Moses arose and his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up on the mountain of God. And he said to the elders, “Stay here for us, until we return to you. See, Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a case may go to them.” Then Moses went upon the mountain and a cloud enveloped the mountain, and the glory of Yahweh stayed upon Mount Sinai and the cloud covered it for six days and he called Moses on the seventh day from the middle of the cloud. And the appearance of Yahweh’s glory was like a devouring fire on top of the mountain, to the eyes of the children of Israel. And Moses went into the middle of the cloud and went up the mountain. Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights.

This ends our reading from the book of Exodus.

You know the rest of the story;  Moses brought down the commandments on stone tablets.  Moses, Miriam, and Aaron[1] took the people through the wilderness for forty years. And while they were nomads in the wilderness, God led them in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. For forty years, the people lived in temporary dwellings: booths or tents. They didn’t build any permanent houses out of stone. For forty years, they didn’t have a permanent place to live.

The people are commanded to remember this time in history in the book of Leviticus. So, once a year, they build booths or tents to live in for a week. Jews today still build booths, called succoth, decorated with branches and newly-harvested fruits and vegetables. This harvest festival is also called the feast of booths or the feast of tabernacles, or in Hebrew, Sukkot. Leviticus says to do this “so that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am Yahweh your God." [2]

Moses was on the mountain for six days, and God spoke to him on the seventh day. In the first creation story in Genesis, God made the world in six days. So any time something happens after six days, it clues us in that a new creation, or at least something important, is happening.

As we read from the gospel, you might hear similarities to the story from Exodus. Listen for the word of God as it is found in Matthew 17:1-9.

And six days later, Jesus took Peter and James and his brother John and led them onto a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured in front of them and his face shone like the sun, his clothes became bright white like the light. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Peter replied, saying to Jesus, “Lord, it’s good for us to be here. If you wish, I’ll make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still replying, suddenly a bright cloud covered them, and suddenly a voice from the cloud said, “This is my son, the beloved – in him I take delight. Hear him.” And the disciples, hearing this, fell to their faces and were greatly afraid.  Jesus came to them and touched them, saying, “Raise up and don’t be afraid.” When they looked up, they saw no one, except Jesus himself, alone. And coming down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Don’t tell the sight you have seen to anyone until the son of humanity is raised from death.”

This ends our reading of God’s word.

Did you hear the echoes from Exodus – the mountain, the cloud, waiting six days, the bright light, and Moses? This new creation, this new law, is the person of Jesus, who is the son of God. Jesus’ story is connected to the story of God’s people.

Peter wanted to celebrate by doing something from his tradition, and build booths. Jesus and Moses and Elijah could live in the booths, just like the people of Israel did once a year, to remember the Exodus.  Great idea, if this story is about tradition.

But it isn’t. Jesus’ story isn’t limited to what has happened before. God interrupts Peter, because the transfiguration is not about tradition, it is about Jesus.

What were the first words Jesus said to them, after they were given the heavenly instructions “Hear him?” Jesus came to them and touched them, saying, “Raise up and don’t be afraid.”

Bright light can be a little scary, because it makes it hard to see, and on a mountain you want to be able to see so you can move safely. And then the cloud comes, and that really makes it hard to see, because the water vapor reflects the light all around. And in a dry place like Israel, bright light in a cloud is unusual, so the disciples wouldn’t have had much experience with that. The heavenly voice and the appearance of Moses and Elijah were also unexpected and scary. But so was what Jesus had been saying to the disciples.

Just before they went on the mountain for the transfiguration, Jesus told the disciples that he would go to Jerusalem, be killed, and then raised on the third day. Peter didn’t like to hear that, and said to Jesus that this can’t happen. And Jesus tells Peter that Peter’s thinking about the wrong things, and reminds Peter that “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Those words were meant to challenge Peter, not comfort him.

We can comfort ourselves by doing what we know how to do when something unfamiliar happens. Peter knew how to build booths or make tents. But traditional customs, old habits, and familiar activities weren’t what this transformation, this metamorphosis, this transfiguration was about; it was about the disciples seeing that Jesus was holy, that he was divine. The disciples heard the heavenly voice say, “Hear him.”

The divine voice, the cloud, the bright light showed the disciples that Jesus was divine, that his words about loving one another, about repentance and serving each other had divine approval.

We might wonder what just three of the four fisherman went up on the mountain with Jesus. What happened to Andrew? I’d always heard that these three were special, and Jesus’ inner circle, until I heard the Rev. Dr. Anna Carter Smith at Synod School in 2011. She asked those of us who are teachers, “Who do you want closest to you?” Right, the kids who need the most help—you encourage them to pay attention and sit close by. So Peter, James and John are the remedial group. The heavenly voice told the group, “Hear him.” Some of us wish our faith was deeper, stronger, better somehow. We feel we are in the remedial group when it comes to faith. So don’t worry. You are in good company.

And what does Jesus say that they’re supposed to listen to? “Don’t be afraid.” He had just told them that he was going to be killed in Jerusalem; being afraid would have been natural.[3]

When we are faced with something unfamiliar, it’s easy to be afraid.  They were afraid of Jesus’ dying, of their own futures. But death, like taxes is a certainty. We are all going to die. I hope I will die peacefully when I am very old. But I don’t know. Some people  do.

Dr. Jeffrey Piehler is a surgeon who is dying of cancer. He has started building his own coffin, much to his wife and friends’ chagrin. They thought it was a sign “he was giving up on life. In fact, the activity helped him live more fully and put things in proper perspective.” He said, “It’s pretty much impossible to feel anger at someone for driving too slowly in front of you in traffic when you’ve just come from sanding your own coffin.”[4]

Henri Nouwen wrote: “We all have dreams about the perfect life: a life without pain, sadness, conflict, or war. The spiritual challenge is to experience glimpses of this perfect life right in the middle of our many struggles. By embracing the reality of our mortal life, we can get in touch with the eternal life that has been sown there. Only by facing our mortality can we come in touch with the life that transcends death. Our imperfections open for us the vision of the perfect life that God in and through Jesus has promised us.”

Spiritual director Fleetwood Range (yes, that’s her real name) studied the medieval mystics of the 14th century and spent time in ancient churches in England (East Anglia). Recently, she found herself “studying a tiny decoration on an immensely high fan vault and thinking ‘No one but God, the artist, and a 21st century tourist with a super zoom lens will ever see that detail. The artist who carved it 600 years ago did it for the love of God alone. And perhaps for me in this unimagined time.’ And I thanked God for that ancient artist’s love of God. It is that love, still warm in the stone, which made the space holy.”[5]

Doing your best, and paying attention to detail isn’t encouraged in many places, but I think it matters. When I write my sermons, I’m careful to footnote where I found a quote, in case I want to use it again and wonder where I got it. Computers make it easy to footnote your writing; when we used typewriters, you had to count how many lines your footnote took up, and make sure to leave room at the bottom of the page for it; and woe to you if there was a quote at the bottom of the page but the footnote had to be continued on the next page.

It also keeps me honest. When I was learning how to preach, I went to a friend’s ordination and heard a bishop tell a story about his life, and I had read that same story in Readers’ Digest when I was in junior high. It made me distrust anything else he had to say. I want people to trust what I was saying. So I got in the habit of keeping track of where I got information.

Some years ago, I had an incredibly busy week—I spend a lot of time with very ill people and ministered to their families. I didn’t have enough time to write a sermon that really encountered the text, so I quoted a lot from Henri Nouwen, who as many of you know, has said a lot of eloquent words about prayer and suffering and faith. It turned out that one of our newest members had brought her fiancé to church, after telling him about my sermons. So I was a little embarrassed that so little of my sermon was original.

To my surprise, he complimented me on my sermon, and said, “I’ve read a lot of Henri Nouwen, and I know his writings well. You are the first pastor I’ve ever heard who quoted him and attributed it to him, instead of acting as if they were your own words.” After that, I realized it was ok not to be original.

With that, here’s another  quote from Henri Nouwen: “We will all die one day. That is one of the few things we can be sure of. But will we die well? That is less certain. Dying well means dying for others, making our lives fruitful for those we leave behind. The big question, therefore, is not ‘What can I still do in the years I have left to live?’ but ‘How can I prepare myself for my death so that my life can continue to bear fruit in the generations that will follow me?’

Jesus died well because through dying he sent his Spirit of Love to his friends, who with that Holy Spirit could live better lives. Can we also send the Spirit of Love to our friends when we leave them? Or are we too worried about what we can still do? Dying can become our greatest gift if we prepare ourselves to die well.”[6]

We’re often afraid of dying and death. It’s unfamiliar to us. One of the ways to make it less scary is to talk about it, and recognize that we can continue to care for those we love if we do a little planning. I heard a story a long time ago about a man who was dying of AIDS,, and he made a video to be shown at his funeral. In the video, he walked around his house, picking up objects he bequeathed to people. The items were labeled with the person’s name, and the words, “I’ve been dying to give this to you.”

And so we don’t need to be afraid of death. We can trust that God will take care of us. That bright cloud didn’t just cover Jesus; it covered Peter, James and John. The message is for them, too. They were included in the light. Jesus told them not to be afraid, not of his words nor of his way. I believe the gospel can transform people; I believe that following Jesus can make a difference to the world as well as to our souls.[7]

We know the story of the crucifixion and the resurrection, so we are free to follow Jesus and to hear him; we don’t need to be afraid either. Amen.

[1] Micah 6:4
[2] Leviticus 23:40-43
[3].Pfeil, Margaret R.  “Oscar Romero’s Theology of the Transfiguration,” Theological Studies, 72 (2011), p. 87+.  
[4] “Century Marks,” Christian Century,  March 5, 2014, p. 8., quoting from, The New York Times Feb. 1, 2014.
[5] “Letters,” ibid p. 6.
[6] Nouwen, Henri, from Bread for the Journey. 1997, a Daily Meditation for Feb,. 26, 2014 from the Henri Nouwen Society. So no page number!
[7] Brueggemann, et al. Texts for Preaching, Year A,  p. 171.