Transformed and Ready for New Life

March 3, 2019, Transfiguration Sunday Year C, Luke 9:28-43a

 

I’m sure you’ve all noticed our cultural obsession to record any and all live events with our cell phone cameras. Concerts, plays, sporting events, or special occasions like weddings or graduations going on? Our inclination with the advent of the cell phone camera is to capture them all for posterity. So, instead of simply viewing these events solely with our eyes and taking in every last aspect of them, how we experience much of life now is as viewed through the limits of the lens of our cell phone cameras.

Because of copyright and creative rights laws many venues and artists prohibit such recording practices and will call out violators for it. That’s what happened a couple of months ago when Lin-Manuel Miranda changed the lyrics to one song in the middle of the musical “Hamilton” as he was performing it in order to call out a woman he spotted filming a performance in Puerto Rico. However, I’ve also been at concerts where the artist saw someone recording and called them out because they felt the violator was missing out on fully experiencing the performance by viewing it through their small cell phone camera lens. The artists pointed out that by simply viewing it through the screen instead of live in real time using their entire field of vision and engaging with hearing it as well, the person was missing out on the full impact of the live performance and would only ever know it through the diminished filter of a cell phone camera. Thus, the artist argued while trying to preserve the experience forever, they never really ever would get the full impact of the performance at all.

In thinking about our gospel reading for this Transfiguration Sunday, I think that in offering to build three dwellings for Jesus, Mose, and Elijah, Peter is doing a similar thing. He sees this amazing and once in a lifetime event happening and instead of taking it in with all its glory and wonder and potential life-changing impact, without thinking or knowing what he is saying he wants to figure out a way to make it last so he can have access to it for as long as he can. Except that in trying to save it he seems not to take in the full impact of it while it is happening. The fact that Peter, James and John walk away after this event and we read they kept silent and told no one what they had seen makes it seem as if they were unaffected by the experience. And when we read that they could not cast out the spirit from the child when called upon to do so make us question further exactly what impact, if any, the experience had on these disciples considering earlier in chapter nine Jesus gave them power and authority over all demons and power to cure diseases.

It would seem that such an experience, witnessing Jesus be transfigured or transformed, would change them. How could it not? Seeing Jesus with his face changed and his clothes becoming a dazzling white and Moses and Elijah appearing and talking to him about what was to happen to him in Jerusalem – which Jesus has told his disciples in the preceding scene is that he will be killed and rise again to new life there – should be life-changing for them. After all, it would seem to confirm what Jesus told them about who he was and what he was about. And then, the voice from heaven saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen; Listen to him!”, only confirms it all the more. It would seem that the experience of witnessing such a dramatic change in Jesus would change them too and yet, while they seem to want to hold onto the event and make it last, they don’t seem to have been much affected by it once they walk down the mountain away from it.

The reaction of Peter, James, and John to the Transfiguration of Jesus makes it seem almost like the mountaintop experience is something special that they feel should be left there. Mountains were known as places to encounter God in Jesus’ day, just as we saw in our first reading from Exodus today as Moses went to the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments. Yet, Moses didn’t come down off the mountain unchanged from his experience with God or try to leave behind what happened, in fact there was no way he could do that. Moses came down so affected from his meeting with God that his face glowed and he had to wear a veil to shield those he encountered from its brightness.

In both cases, Moses and Jesus didn’t go to the mountain to escape and stay there with God away from the world. Instead, they went up the mountain to meet God and come back down changed and prepared to do God’s work out in the world. Both knew that their encounters with God made them different, they were transformed by the experiences, and they were made ready for the life-changing work ahead of them that God sent them back down the mountains to be part of. These transfiguration experiences up on the mountains with God aren’t meant to stay there like some private encounters to be kept secret between them and God forever. These experiences instead were meant to give them a vision of what is possible with God to then take down the mountains with them into the world.

Peter, James, and John seem to miss this or resist this and so often we do too. They didn’t want to be changed and often neither do we. We’d like to keep our faith and religious experiences frozen in time and space within the walls of the church where we try to limit our encounters with God to. We try to keep them locked away there so that our church experiences forever remain unchanged with how they were in the glory days of the past or at least what seemed to us to be the glory days of the past. Even as it gets harder and harder for us to hold onto that way that way of life as the world around us changes. T. Denise Anderson in her commentary on this reading says we don’t want to change because, “We don’t know what change will mean for us, what it will take away from us, where it will call us to go, or what it will call us to do.” She writes, “We’re often more comfortable being religious than we are being changed. We resist being changed in a way that we can be agents of healing. We resist being changed in a way that will make us purveyors of justice. We resist being changed in a way that will enable us to share God’s glory instead of hiding from it or trying to hold onto it.”

I think this is because change involves death and resurrection for us. My colleague Erik likes to say that we Christians love to talk about the resurrection part of our faith, but we’d like to skip right over the death part. Except we can’t get to resurrection without going through death first. Something has to die in order for it to be born again, but too often we in the church try to avoid letting things die at all costs.

We’ve seen the pain of trying to hold onto the way of the past on full display as the United Methodist Church met this past week to vote about the future of their denomination and whether they would allow LGBTQ clergy and same sex marriage. They had to choose between what they called the Traditional Plan which would continue with their ban on each and actually double down on their current way as it closed up loopholes so those breaking these rules would be punished more severely. While the One Church Plan alternative which would have allowed for change to permit individual clergy and congregations to decide on these matters to fully welcome LGBTQ persons on a local level while keeping the church whole on a global level. They voted to choose the Traditional Plan which Jerry Kuleh, head of the UMC Africa Initiative, said allowed him to go back to Africa “to old ladies and old men in villages who received the Bible from missionaries and let them know that the Bible hasn’t changed.” While retired bishop and Duke University theologian Will Willimon said that this lack of change in clinging to the old ways is “a failure of the church.”

As Episcopalians and Lutherans, both our denominations have been through these same struggles over sexuality and the difficult change they meant for us as the church as we had to let our old ways die in order for something new we felt God calling us to to be born from it. It was not easy for us either and caused much pain and fracture just as our United Methodist brothers and sisters are going through now. So we continue to hold them in prayer and offer them support as they look for a way forward together for healing and justice for all even as their actions mean that many among them feel unwelcome in their own church now and threats of schism continue from those on both sides of the issue.

And on the local level as Episcopalians and Lutherans we’ve seen as a parish over the past four years how hard it is to let go of our ideas and vision of who we used to be as the church in our different denominations, traditions, history, and practices and letting that die as God has raised up something new here in our life together as one congregation. It has been a process of much grief, fear, anger, frustration, impatience, uncertainty, and anxiety as each community – the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany and Christ the King Lutheran Church – have had to let go of clinging to the ideas of our individual glory days in order to embrace the new thing we felt God doing here to join us together as one community of faith. It has and continues to be a challenging process for us as we move forward together united in Christ prepared to be the church not for the 1950s when we both first formed individually, but ready for 2019 when the world outside our doors needs us to offer a much different witness to the power and glory of Jesus Christ for this day.

Like Peter, James, and John, we know from personal experience that such change, such death and resurrection, is not easy. It is hard work and asks much of us. Yet, on the mountaintop Jesus gives us a glimpse of the wonder of what that death and resurrection can do when we allow Jesus to change us into the people of healing, justice, and reconciliation God made us to be and Jesus calls us to be as his followers. He gives us a glimpse of what God can do with and through us when refuse to stay stuck on the mountain holding onto what used to be, but come down transformed and ready for the new life he promises us is ahead. And so a blessing for all of us in the church for that journey of transformation God is working in us on this day of Transfiguration from United Methodist pastor and author Jan Richardson.

DAZZLING

A Blessing for Transfiguration Sunday

 

Believe me, I know

how tempting it is

to remain inside this blessing,

to linger where everything

is dazzling

and clear.

 

We could build walls

around this blessing,

put a roof over it.

We could bring in

a table, chairs,

have the most amazing meals.

We could make a home.

We could stay.

 

But this blessing

is built for leaving.

This blessing

is made for coming down

the mountain.

This blessing

wants to be in motion,

to travel with you

as you return

to level ground.

 

It will seem strange

how quiet this blessing becomes

when it returns to earth.

It is not shy.

It is not afraid.

 

 

It simply knows

how to bide its time,

to watch and wait,

to discern and pray

 

until the moment comes

when it will reveal

everything it knows,

when it will shine forth

with all it has seen,

when it will dazzle

with the unforgettable light

you have carried

all this way.

 

—Jan Richardson from Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons

 

Amen.

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