Saturday, February 25, 2017

[unpreached sermon] What We Bring With Us Into Lent [Transfiguration 2017]

What We Bring With Us Into Lent
Six days later, Jesus took Peter and the siblings James and John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.

And Jesus was transfigured before them -- face shining like the sun, and clothes becoming dazzling white.

Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

While Peter was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Child, the Beloved; with whom I am well pleased; listen this one!”

When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus alone.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Child of Humanity has been raised from the dead.”

Matthew 17:1-9 (NRSV, alt)

Some of you may have seen on Facebook (or elsewhere on the Internet) that Parity, a faith-based LGBTQ-focused organization based in NYC, is offering glitter ashes for Ash Wednesday this year.

On their website, they write:

At this moment in history, glitter ashes will be a powerful reminder of St. Augustine’s teaching that we cannot despair because despair paralyzes, thwarting repentance and impeding the change that we are called to make.

Glitter+Ash exquisitely captures the relationship between death and new life. We do not live in fear of ash -- of death -- we place it on our foreheads for the world to see. We know that fear will rise, cramping our hearts. We also know that God specifically calls us not to project that fear onto the Other, the alien, the stranger in our midst. God insists that we look for the spark of life, of hope, in ourselves and one another. This Ash Wednesday, we will make that spark easier to see. We will stand witness to the gritty, glittery, scandalous hope that exists in the very marrow of our tradition.

At the Transfiguration, a few of the disciples see the spark in Jesus made externally manifest for a brief moment.

And it doesn’t come at a random place in the story.

The Season following Epiphany this year hasn’t been a narrative journey through Jesus’ life so much as it’s been a dwelling in the teachings of Jesus -- primarily the Sermon on the Mount. So the liturgical year doesn’t offer us a lot of context for the story today and our jump into Lent a few days from now. We’ve skipped over Jesus asking the disciples “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter confessing Jesus as Messiah (Matthew 16:13-20), which is almost immediately followed by, “From that time on, Jesus began to tell the disciples: I must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matthew 16:21, NRSV, alt.).

So we get this glittering moment, not early in Jesus’ ministry when one might be advertising for new recruits, but near the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry, when things are starting to get difficult -- well, more difficult than they already are when your life’s work is on the margins and you have no home or even steady source of income. A couple chapters earlier, we learned of the death of John the Baptist (Matthew 14:1-12). These are difficult times. The Empire is, if not winning, certainly encroaching.

So Jesus takes a few of the disciples up to a mountaintop.

And is transfigured.

And Moses and Elijah show up and Peter, bless, says, “This is great! Jesus, if you’re okay with it, let’s stay here forever.”

And while Peter is still speaking, a cloud appears and the voice of God reiterates the statement from Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3:17) that Jesus is God's beloved child, with whom God is well pleased.

And the disciples are terrified, and Jesus comforts them, and Moses and Elijah disappear -- and one imagines that Jesus stops glowing -- and the 4 of them go back down the mountain.

They continue their journey toward Jerusalem -- on which journey Jesus will twice more reiterate the “I will be betrayed, killed, and resurrected” prediction (Matthew 17:22-23 and 20:17-19).

One of the lessons of the Transfiguration story is that transcendent experiences are fleeting and are not a place we can stay forever; instead, we have to go back -- not just to return to regular life but, at this point in the biblical story, to continue on toward a confrontation with the powers of Empire that may ultimately kill us.

Lent invites us in to the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness after being baptized and before beginning public ministry.

Lent has traditionally been a catechumenary period -- with adults often getting baptized during the Easter Vigil service, having died to their old lives and been reborn in Christ.

This year in particular, I think there’s a lot of value in focusing on Lent as valuable in and of itself, not just as a means to an end. Especially if we think of it as mirroring Jesus’ time in the desert, when Jesus faces the temptations of comfort and security, the temptation to give our allegiance to that which is not God.

Lent feels to me like a good metaphor for our lives under this current political regime, and we’re going to spend a lot more than 40 days here.

Using the Transfiguration as a guide, I’d like to propose 3 things we bring with us into Lenten times and places -- into deserts and wildernesses -- to sustain us:

  1. Our belovedness
  2. Our tradition
  3. Our community
The most obvious piece of the Transfiguration story -- in fact the piece which we use to name the story -- is Jesus glowing like the sun.

Because God breaks up the party, it’s easy -- at least for me -- to forget what God actually says: “This is my child, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Echoing what God said at Jesus’ baptism -- which we celebrated just a couple months ago.

Yes, when God says it at the Transfiguration, Jesus has done a fair amount of teaching and healing -- but the baptism was one of the very first stories Matthew told about Jesus, before Jesus had done anything at all. We are beloved to God, who is well pleased with us, because we are God’s children, not because of any of our accomplishments.

In a sermon on the Baptism of Jesus1, reflecting on the temptation in the wilderness that immediately follows the baptism, Lutheran pastor and problematic fave Nadia Bolz-Weber2 said, “Before we do anything wrong and before we do anything right, God has named and claimed us as God’s own. But almost immediately, other things try to tell us who we are and to whom we should belong.” She suggests that “if God’s first move is to give us our identity, then the devil’s first move is to throw that identity into question.”

As Parity states, “God insists that we look for the spark of life, of hope, in ourselves and one another.” This can be hard. Sometimes we feel worn out, like we’re failing at everything, like all the systems we’re working against are just too big and too powerful… Jesus probably feels you on this. The text doesn’t tell us why Jesus took a few of the disciples up to this mountain, but we read elsewhere in the Gospels about Jesus retreating away from the crowds, up to a mountain alone to pray (e.g., Matthew 14.23), so it’s very possible that Jesus was tired and needed a break. God’s declaration of belovedness doesn’t come in the midst of an impressive crowd scene, but instead in a quiet moment apart, perhaps a moment of weariness.

Prof. Alyce M. McKenzie suggests:

If you know what it is like to be tired, to have people seeking you out for what you can do for them, and other people criticizing you and working against you, if you have ever been filled with dread at what lies ahead, you have a little something in common with Jesus. If you know what it's like to feel those things as a direct result of serving God, then you have even more in common with Jesus.
Admittedly, most of us don’t get a personal Transfiguration glow or a declaration from the heavens, but I do want to argue that God is still with us.

I’m not sure exactly where Parity is getting their Augustinian teaching that “we cannot despair because despair paralyzes,” but in Sermon 142 (preaching on John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”) Augustine exhorts against despair, reminding us of St. Paul’s statement that “Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6) and asserting that we were so loved before there was anything in us to merit that love.

We are deeply, unfathomably loved. And nothing we can do or fail to do, nothing that can be done to us, can change that.

As we have often heard quoted from Paul’s letter to the Romans:

I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:38-39, NRSV, alt.)
I would add to Paul’s list of things that cannot separate us from the love of God: executive orders, deportations, angry white men with guns, despair, fatigue, numbness, an inability to make phonecalls, an inability to attend protests … none of the threats to our safety or the voices that say we’re not doing enough, can separate us from the love of God.

Black gay Episcopalian Broderick Greer, preparing to preach this Sunday, noted:

when studying for my homily, I found out that the original word for "transfigured" can mean "Appearance matching one's inner reality".
A Transfiguration moment is one in which we are truly and deeply known. It is at this moment and at Jesus’ baptism that God’s voice breaks through the clouds to say, “This is my beloved child, with whom I am well-pleased.” That identity, beloved of God, is always at the core of who we are.

Now, the second most memorable part of the story is the appearance of Moses and Elijah -- representatives of the Law and the Prophets. We’re told that they talk with Jesus, though Matthew doesn’t tell us what they talk about. But their very appearance, in addition to suggesting a sort of blessing from the elders, reminds us of the tradition that Jesus inherited.

Many generations back, the Hebrews had left Canaan because there was a famine, and they settled in Egypt, where they ended up enslaved. Born to Hebrews, Moses escapes death due to the kindness and cunning of a variety of women, living first as an Egyptian royal and then marrying into the family of a desert priest, before finally returning to Egypt to lead the Hebrews out of bondage, aided by Moses’ siblings Aaron and Miriam. Moses leads the people for forty years, bringing them the Law which will help them live in closer covenant with God and sometimes intervening on the people’s behalf when God gets really upset at their breaking that covenant.

Generations later, in their new home, the kingdom that the Hebrews build will fracture, and Elijah will arise as one of the great prophets, zealous for God, calling down a drought and being fed by ravens in the desert, threatened with death by an angry ruler and spoken to by God in a mountain cave.

Jesus comes from a tradition not just of Law and Prophets but of border people, people who are rarely at home in the comfortable center but are called into places of newness and conflict, called to do a new thing with and for God’s people.

This discomfort, this marginality, feels really resonant to me in this socio-political moment.

This is the tradition that we, too, inhabit. We do not inherit a promise that it will be easy, but we do inherit a promise that God will be with us. As God was with Moses, and Elijah, and Jesus, and the communities around them.

Which brings us to the third item, that this mountaintop experience -- unlike many mountaintop experiences -- happened in community, with witnesses.

Only 3 witnesses, admittedly, but still, this was not a private meeting between Jesus and the ancestors or Jesus and God, this was something that Jesus and Peter and James and John could all carry with them.

We don’t know how the disciples reflected on this experience, or what they said amongst themselves about it -- only that the story made it into the written record, showing up in 3 out of 4 of our canonical Gospels. But we can imagine them whispering among themselves while walking a long and dusty road, or under cover of darkness as they drift toward sleep -- reminding themselves that it really happened, and wondering what exactly it means.

When things get harder -- and they will -- we have a community who can remind us of the Transfiguration moments.

We have a community who can remind us of our tradition -- of those who came before us, and why we continue to do this work.

We have a community who can remind us that we are beloved.

We have people who can go on retreat with us, who can dance in defiant joy with us, who can renew our baptisms with us after we’ve changed our name, who can march and rally with us, who can provide childcare and pots of soup.

Blogger D. Mark Davis noted that the Greek word translated “transfigured” (or “transformed”) only shows up 2 other times in the New Testament outside of the Transfiguration story: Romans 12:2 and 2 Corinthians 3:18.

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)

And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of God as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from God, the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:18, NRSV, alt.)

Transfiguration is, for most of us, a process. Those moments when we reflect our best selves, when we are most in tune with God, we can carry with us into Lent to sustain us.

Nurtured and fed by our community, our tradition, and our core identity as God's beloved, we can make our way through even the most threatening and bewildering times.



1 Bolz-Weber, Nadia. Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint. New York: Jericho Books, 2013, pp. 138-9.

2 Insert long footnote here about how she (and Rachel Held Evans) responded (or failed to) when it became known that their friend Tony Jones had abused his now ex-wife.

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