quilt blocks by the women of St. Philip's Episcopal Church in Marysville, WA
A sermon for the people of Abiding Presence Lutheran Church in San Antonio, Texas:
This story from our Gospel lesson is bizarre. Flat out weird. Theologian Will Willimon says, “This story is kinky and weird. It’s almost a judgement on the over-rationalization of Christianity….This story kind of blows that [rationalization] to bits.”
This is a story which will hurt your brain if you think about it too hard. You almost have to feel this one to make any sense of it at all.
Jesus takes Peter and James and John up (yet another) mountain. Geography is important to Matthew. As we read through this gospel account this year, pay attention to the setting of the scene. Where they are is often as important as what they are doing to the whole of the message.
For example, this week, the mountain is intended to evoke the scene in Exodus when Moses receives the stone tablets of the Law. Here, we receive Jesus – the fulfillment of the Law.
So, they’ve climbed another mountain. (I like to think they’ve packed all they’ll need for a camping trip. A guys’ weekend adventure or something.) And at the top of the mountain, Matthew tells us, Jesus is transfigured before them. Now, I’ve paid attention to my professors and my pastors and my parents and Sunday school teachers, but no one yet has been able to tell me exactly what transfigured means. What does that look like? Does Jesus get all bright and shiny? Is it really blinding? How did Moses and Elijah get there? What happens afterward? Where do Moses and Elijah disappear to? Does Jesus just go back to being regular old Jesus? Or can we sense something different about him from here on out?
I’ve heard “transfigured” explained as “change,” and I’d be tempted to buy into that theory except that the change in this story appears to be a temporary visual change, and the God we find in the scriptures time and again is, in fact, a God of change but of the permanent, bone-deep variety.
So I wonder, if this light show was just a way to get the disciples to pay attention to the rest of the story. After all, they are so painfully human that they often miss the important stuff because they’ve slept through it or run away or are just seriously blockheaded. I can totally relate. I’ve missed the meaningful stuff too many times because I was expecting something bigger or brighter or “more important.”
Now, Peter (I love Peter. He gives us hope for ourselves. If God can love and use that guy, there’s a chance for the rest of us.) but Peter is so taken up with the whole light show that he starts to babble…on and on…”hey! Wow! Dudes, check it out! Jesus, it is so AWESOME to be here!! Let’s stay and make a couple of tiny houses. It’ll be a great party all the time, I’ll make three houses…one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah…” and as he’s babbling on, the very voice of God comes from a cloud. And God cuts him off mid-thought. “Hey! Be quiet for a minute. This is my Son, marked by my love, the focus of my delight. He’s my Beloved. Listen to him.”
Here’s the head-scratching part to me. Through the whole light show and the return of Moses and Elijah from the dead, the disciples are completely into the scene. They’re wide-eyed, paying attention, totally engaged, and excited. But the moment that God declares God’s love for Jesus, the disciples are “overcome by fear”. They fall to the ground.
I wonder if it was easier for the disciples to see the sheer awesomeness of God than it was for them to hear a total declaration of love. I think that the part that changes the story and that ultimately changes us is not simply the voice of God, but the words which God speaks.
See, a light show is something you can brag to the rest of your friends about later. But to know that the man with whom you are standing is called Beloved by the One who created you…and that your call is simply to listen to him and that Creator thought it important enough to deliver that message in person, so to speak…well that changes everything. And it’s a bone-deep kind of change. Once we hear that message, once we own that message, nothing is ever, ever the same again.
Because Jesus says a whole lot of things to us. And we are commanded by God to listen. And that message is challenging to relay to our friends because it is SO counter-cultural.
The whole message of the life of Jesus of Nazareth can be boiled down to a small number of things. 1) Love God above and before everything else 2)Love your neighbor; don’t be a jerk to your neighbor 3) Your neighbor is everyone but especially that person you’d rather not even think about 4) love and nice are not always the same thing 5) and sometimes the loving thing is really, really hard.
And when you think about how big and important the words and commands of Jesus are, and when you think about how difficult living up to that really is, but you also remember how God says, “Listen to him”. Well, that responsibility and its magnitude are absolutely terrifying. I might fall to the ground, too, because a “listen to him” from God implies a command to do the things Jesus says.
But there, on the mountain, God says, “listen to him.”
Hear the good news: God says "listen," and then the very first thing Jesus says on that mountain top is “get up and do not be afraid.”
We have heard the words of God, and we have been changed. We are freed, forgiven, and we are loved deeply by the One who made us and called us “good”. And if we can really, truly believe that, then we can get up, without fear. And we can begin to seek God by sharing our lives with our neighbors.
And then, the whole world will be changed. Bone-deep.