Sunday, February 22, 2009
A sermon for the Feast of the Transfiguration
Yesterday I spent the morning attending the deacons’ training on the Old Testament event for our Southern Tier Conference. I went because I am teaching the portion on the Gospels next month and wanted to know the level of learning that I should teach. Pastor Michele did a wonderful presentation of how to approach Hebrew Scriptures. But the difficulty is in trying to fit the important points of 3, 000 years of history, culture, theology and literature into a matter of hours. And those of us who teach these courses have years of studying to shave down material to a matter of hours. I came away somewhat frustrated. It is the same thing that happens in trying to preach—how to shave down the myriad of meanings of three Scripture passages as they apply to us today.
I love studying Scripture. Sometimes it is easy to get lost in the various passages we have in our worship services. And it is easy to take a story out of context and apply our own present point of view and therefore distort what that passage originally meant. But it takes a willingness to stop and look at what the author of the passage is trying to say. This is when the true study of Scripture takes place.
Today’s gospel reading is a point in hand. This is the story of the Transfiguration. I have heard explanations of this story that include everything from a very mundane experience of mass hysteria to this story as a case for extra-terrestrial intervention in the Bible. But in order to study Scripture honestly and in keeping with the traditions of Scripture study in the Lutheran and Episcopal churches we need to ask questions of the text. And the first question we need to ask of the passage is “What is the writer of the passage trying to tell his readers about God?”
In today’s gospel reading Jesus takes Peter, James and John up to a high mountain ostensibly for prayer. To the Israelite mind, ‘to go up upon the mountain’ is to commune with God. It means that Jesus was going out to have an experience of the Holy One. And while there, Elijah, and Moses, both long-dead and iconic heroes of the people of Israel appear with Jesus to Peter, James and John. We don’t know which mountain this is. It doesn’t matter because this is a story that is told to show that Jesus is greater than Elijah and Moses. This story is told to say that Jesus is the son of God. This passage is not meant to tell you exactly what happened—it is told to define who God was for Mark and the people he wrote the gospel for. He wrote the gospel to tell the story of Jesus and Jesus was more than a Messiah.
We also find that Mark wanted to remind his readers that this Jesus stood in the line of the prophets of Israel. He was the pinnacle of the history of Judah. But all these suggest that Mark was writing history and not myth or metaphor, even if the story, like so many stories in the Gospels (and much of science, by the way), is easier to describe than to explain.
“Whether Peter, James and John had an ecstatic vision, or whether Jesus was literally if briefly "metamorphosized" before their very eyes, the natural, physical phenomenon of brilliant light is secondary to the supernatural, metaphysical affirmation of the voice from the cloud — this Jesus whom the disciples followed was not just a rebel rabbi, clever sage, socio-political provocateur, subversive wisdom teacher, ascetic, or failed apocalyptic troublemaker. The transfiguration portrays him as the Cosmic Lord of all human history, and God's beloved and specifically appointed Son. Having thus experienced a fleeting glimpse and foretaste of the full and final consummation of all things, the conclusion is inevitable: "Listen to him."” Dan Clendenin
Mark was trying to explain an experience of the Divine. We do not know all that Peter, James and John saw. What we have is most likely the explanation of Peter, or James, or John, years later as they understood their own conversion to Jesus as more than a charismatic rabbi.
The more I live into this life of Jesus, I am aware of how important it is that we be clear about who Jesus is in our lives. There are those who claim Jesus as Divine—the only begotten Son of God. There are those who find him to be a remarkable human being whom God has chosen to proclaim him as Creator. It doesn’t matter to me. What IS important is that we are clear that Jesus has impacted our lives in a way that we are changed by it. That is the important thing about the event we call the Transfiguration.
To be changed by God, to be moved to transform the way we once were because we have come to embrace God and God’s creation is conversion. Conversion is not a single event. Conversion is a daily action that re-enforces that initial moment in which we came to know God as God. And even if we do not have some mountain-top experience, we know those who have and have found those experiences enough to make our selves available to God’s grace.
The Transfiguration of Jesus is our story too. Each of us has that moment when Christ becomes that Holy One. Each of us, through prayer, through worship, through the sacraments, through study, through miraculous events that have happened to us come to the same moment. It is when we realize without a doubt that God loves us, that God saves us, that God is present to us and will be for all time. Jesus may not appear with Elijah and Moses, but we come to an affirmation of our faith that is inexplicable, not easily shared but deeply confirmed in our hearts.
I watch the events of the Church with some apprehension. I know deep within me that there is a kind of conversion going on in mainline Protestantism. I do not know where it is going. We are seeing churches changing allegiances. We hear of churches closing or combining. We feel discomfiture in changes in age-old traditions that are as much of our faith as the Bible. But one thing for certain, God has promised not to leave us, or creation, orphans. Lutheranism and Episcopalianism is going to change. We will be transformed by God’s love if we but remain faithful to that vision that Peter, James and John had 2000 years ago. They came to know that God was active in their lives and they changed their world.
Today, we are provided with that same vision. God has changed our lives and we are called by God to not only be changed by that vision, but to share that vision of God’s love with the world. I do not know what our churches are going to look like in another hundred years. Even the children being raised here in St. Luke’s will know what the church will become. But we are living out what it means to be faithful to that vision—that idea that the world can be converted by a love if we are but willing to be moved by it. I cannot change myself alone, but only by the grace of God. I cannot proclaim the love of God, except by the grace of God. I cannot do otherwise because that vision of Jesus has become my vision. And it is that vision—that experience of conversion has permeated how I see the world as it has for Christians for 2 thousand years.
The church may not be the same kind of organization in the future. We may not attend great buildings, or sing the same hymns as our forbearers. But I do believe that the vision of Jesus to confirm in his disciples’ lives the message of God’s active presence will continue in the stories we tell and our children tell and our children’s children tell of the Holy One who stood in the traditions of his people and told of the intimacy of God’s converting, transforming, transfiguring love. AMEN