March 3, 2019
Luke 9:28-36, Exodus 34:29-35
“Lessons from the Mountaintop”
The United Methodist Church has been in the news this week following their General Conference. This conference was intended to help them discern a way forward from deep conflict over the “issue” of homosexuality. It is hard to know what to say following a narrow vote that left many feeling devastated and others feeling determined. One of the things I learned after a difficult sanctuary vote eighteen months ago is that following a meeting like that there are no winners and losers. My United Methodist roots are deep from my parents meeting in a Methodist Sunday School class to experiencing God’s call on a Methodist youth retreat, being educated in Methodist schools, and being ordained in the United Methodist Church. I watch what is happening to that denomination with sadness, but not surprise.
In fact, as I look at it, I see our country’s political situation. We are not cohabitating peacefully across the political spectrum. We are deeply divided and I wonder how to repair the deep chasm between liberal and conservative, between Republican and Democrat, between the NRA and those who advocate for some controls on gun ownership, between those who are struggling with climate change and those who say it is a hoax, between those who support public education and those who believe education should be privatized…I could go on and on.
In this place of conflict comes transfiguration. Transfiguration Sunday marks the end of the season of Epiphany and points us toward Lent. It is late this year because Easter is April 21st. On first glance, the transfiguration story seems to (literally) be a pie in the sky story of God’s glory, and it seems to have little to say to us today. But context is everything. One of the things about the lectionary is that often our readings are takenout of context. Both the reading from Exodus and from Luke are about God’s glory shining on people. Both come after disappointment and failure.
In Exodus, things are not going well with the people and God is ready to destroy them. Moses climbed the mountain to ask God to spare the people. God relents and sends him back with two stone tablets with information about how to be God’s people. (We call them the ten commandments.) He was gone a long time and the people grew impatient and convinced his brother Aaron who was acting as interim until Moses returned, to build a golden calf that they could worship. Moses comes down the mountain with the Ten Commandments and discovered the golden calf. In his rage, he throws down the ten commandments and they shatter into a million pieces. A lot of other really bad stuff happens here. He has to climb back up the mountain to tell God. He is given a replacement set of commandments. The reading this morning describes glow on his face when he returnsas a result of his encounter with God. So, this may be a story of Moses’ glowing face, but it is not all sunshine and roses.
Just before Jesus invites Peter, James, and John to go on a hike up a mountain, he tells them that he is going to die. He tells them that they must lose their life to save it. Again, not all sunshine and roses.
It is following his prediction of death that Jesus is transfigured on a mountaintop, and his clothes are so white, they appear to have been soaked in bleach. That is rather miraculous after a long dusty hike up a mountain.
Another part of the context is what was happening historically when the gospels were written. The Temple had been destroyed by this time and the writers told of the transfiguration as a way saying that the destruction of the Temple is not the last word. It seems that Jesus is replacing the Temple. That was good news to those who first heard it and I assume it is good news for United Methodists too. The Church will not have the last word, God will. It can certainly be good news for us as well. I love our beautiful church and the people here. I love our denomination. AND, both the UCC and our own church are imperfect. It is good to be reminded that it isn’t up to us and that the church is not the last word. God is.
Following our conversation in text study this week, Jennifer Scoggin sent us this poem written by Stephen Kliewer. Here are a few excerpts:
“its an odd thing
how many religions insist that we must constantly die to the old
and be reborn to what is new
in order to find life
in order to be who and what we were designed,
as Sacred Children, to be
it is also odd how persistently we ignore this…
but Jesus suggested that we must die, and die and die again
to all that “old” stuff that keeps us
from being born again
That includes our old views of ourselves
And that includes
Our old ideas about God
Who is ever revealing…
There is so much we have to die to
The need to control
We must die to these things day by day
Moment by moment
So that God’s new thing can be born
But most of all we need to let go our old inadequate concepts of God
And God’s way
And be born into that wild, foolish, loving way of the Divine
Where all means all
All are welcome
All is forgiven
All is given
Where love reigns”
Transfiguration isn’t an easy concept. It is easy to write it off as some weird science fiction story of people living and long gone having a chat in the clouds. But it is a reminder that God is among us now. We get glimpses of it in worship, in conversations, in creation, in moments when we can restore relationships that seemed beyond repair, in a twelve step program where one’s addiction begins to move to the back seat accompanied by the support of others who have been there and know the road one is on, in a moment where a heart is cracked open in pain and love breaks in.
Transfiguration isn’t a sign that all is put back together, but it is standing in the brokenness and seeing that God is there, even there and that brokenness isn’t all there is. In that place, we begin to be changed from the inside out. It is terrifying and it is beautiful all at once. It is why we hear the word fear of God so often in scripture. It is completely overwhelming to be in the presence of God. It doesn’t mean our lives are in danger, but it doesn’t mean that they aren’t either. It does mean that God is with us in that moment and God’s great love will pour over us in ways we will never fully understand.
I still don’t know about the next steps for the United Methodist Church. I don’t know the next steps for our deeply divided country. I do know that we are called to climb this mountain bringing with us our fears and our hopes, our brokenness and our beauty and God will meet us there.