Sunday, February 10, 2013

Transfiguration Sunday

Luke 9
28Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” —not knowing what he said. 34While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

Your Church Council Executive met this past week, and you will be pleased to know that amid all the ‘church business’ we wrestled with some deeply theological questions.

For example, what kind of palms should we get for Palm Sunday? The bushy kind (custom gesture) or the long slender kind?

Will it be a real Palm Sunday service? (My first response: You can fake these things?) I actually had the answer, and more on that in a moment.

And perhaps the most vital question of the evening: Have we managed to secure a baby for Easter Sunday? (The answer is yes, and two Confirmands too).

And leading more to the business side, a question for the Management Committee: How do you follow the extraordinary work done on the new wall in the sanctuary? Well, by remodeling bathrooms, of course!

Now, some of you would rather ‘ignore the man behind the curtain’ (not that your Executive is pretending to be the great and powerful Oz) and simply allow the church to unfold. Generally, however, I know this is true for few at Central. With one of the best attended annual meetings here at Central, I know people are quite engaged in the unfolding administrative story of the church. Or they like a good lunch. One of those two.

Back to the question of the real or fake Palm Sunday service, I can explain. It seems that in recent years a trend has developed, based on congregational behavior, the kind that we happily don’t see here. Year by year, in other places, people skip Good Friday.

Of course, you have heard me address this topic before. Each year I encourage people to attend Good Friday service because they need to hear the whole story. You can’t understand Resurrection without at least a glimpse of crucifixion. Like Noah, narrative has an arc, and without experiencing some of the hopelessness you can’t fully appreciate the hope. Put another way, unless you meet the flying monkeys, you can’t understand that there is truly ‘no place like home.’ That may have been the last Oz reference today, but there are no guarantees.

So to remedy low or no attendance at Good Friday services, churches have tended to cancel them in favour of something called “Palm-Passion Sunday.” I have led these a few times, and I have to say they are pretty unsatisfying. You begin in the usual way, with a palm parade and the (maybe ironic) celebration of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. Then at some moment, and often quite abruptly, you do a switch and read the passion narrative, sparing none of the details. Then you send people away.

There are two problems with this approach, the first being that you do not allow Palm to be Palm, with all the celebration and all the complexity that the Sunday brings. Next, you read the passion narrative without the benefit of a sermon, the ‘interpreted Word’ that allows you to hear a torturous story and put it into the context of the work of God in the world. Unpreached, it is just a cruel story from a cruel age, but with a good Good Friday sermon, it becomes a story of redemption.

So now that you’ve seen way behind the curtain, what about the story of the day, the story before the story, the story that happens each year just as we are set to enter Lent? It begins like this:

Eight days later Jesus took Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to Jesus. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.

You see why, year by year, this is the story that precedes Lent. We are about to journey up to Jerusalem, to seek the higher ground of the Holy City, to witness what happens when the itinerant phase of Jesus earthly ministry ends and he reaches the heart of Israel.

We already know how this story ends, but if you suspend that for just a moment, you can imagine the excitement the disciples must have felt knowing that Jesus was getting ‘called up to the big show,’ that he was going to take his message of a renewed faith directly to the people who could make change, and maybe demonstrate more of God’s power in a place impressive people could be truly impressed.

But that’s not what happens. Then as now, it is the very people who should be most open, the religious people, who seem most closed to the new thing God is doing in the world. And this is not a story about Jewish people refusing to see the Messiah, a point-of-view we discredited long ago. Imagine instead a story about ugly Christians with hateful placards protesting the very things that they ought to embrace. If Jesus appeared at such a protest, preaching unconditional love, a cross would surely follow.

So we know that story and how the story ends. But Transfiguration Sunday is the story before the story, and the details of the encounter tell is more. They tell us about the disciples state-of-mind in these days before Jerusalem: what they are prepared to hear and what they cannot hear.

You know how this works. Our brains seem conditioned to take in unexpected news slowly. You go to the doctor to hear some news and you are cautioned to take someone with you, to help you hear, or at least help you remember. Or the opposite: you hear something truly exciting (sadly, it’s only those foolish 6-49 commercials that come to mind) and you have left saying ‘really, is that true?’

Maybe over the last million years of so we became conditioned to temper the fight-or-flight response by having some difficulty hearing big news. If the news is ‘there is danger just outside the door to our cave’ then the flight response might lead you into further danger. See what I mean? Actually, it has been determined that cavemen didn’t actually live in caves, we just named them that because caves are the only place they left evidence of their lives.

So two things are communicated in the story of the transfiguration, one thing they can hear and one they cannot. It says ‘they were speaking of his departure, and what he would accomplish in Jerusalem’ and get nary a detail. Jesus, Moses and Elijah set out what will happen in the weeks to come, the most important weeks of God’s earthly project, and not a single detail is recorded or shared. The topic is recorded, they heard that much, but the rest is sublimated, and lost to history: until it begins to happen. So what could they hear?

Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone.

Amazing that the only words they can hear and record are the very same words we heard at Jesus’ baptism, the very beginning of his public ministry, the words that have been rattling around in their brains for three long years. These words they can hear. Any why? Because at this moment the three disciples seem to need some assurance, that amid all the coming uncertainly, in the bright light of the moment, this beloved one remained the same, the same blessed child of God who was their companion and guide. They needed comfort, and so only one message is retained in their memory.

But what was truly happening—and I apologize in advance for taking you back to Oz—was a look behind the curtain to see the inner workings of the Word made flesh. This dialogue between heaven and earth, between Jesus and Mose and Elijah was not a ‘one-off’ affair, it was ongoing. There was never not a moment (double negative!) that Jesus wasn’t aware of the eternal context of all that was happening to him. This was a glimpse of something they could barely grasp, and barely hear, and barely describe later.

And for one brief and literally shining moment that caught a glimpse, a glimpse of the inner workings of that other world, where the ‘saints in light’ look in on us and try to speak to us and together lean in for concern with the human way.

It is this concern that becomes our ‘takeaway’ from this story, that nevermore will we imagine ‘benign indifference’ when we glance up: instead, we can see (if only in our mind’s eye) Jesus and Moses and Elijah and the whole host of heaven urging us on to Lent and beyond, with the words “My son is with you, my chosen, who speaks words you need to hear.” Thanks be to God. Amen.


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