February 26, 2017
Matthew 17:1-9, Exodus 24:12-18
Today we finish the season of Epiphany with the story of the transfiguration. This strange story bridges Epiphany and Lent every year. Those of us who grew up seeing Clark Kent become Superman may not find this story so strange. Jesus is a mix of human and divine. Yet we aren’t always sure how to move between those two dimensions. His followers were used to seeing the earthy part of him and they certainly witnessed Jesus doing things that seemed otherworldly – walking on water, healing people who seemed to be beyond healing, turning water into wine, bringing dead people back to life. I wonder how they processed all that they experienced with this man. They must have had some interesting late night conversations!
Matthew, Mark and Luke each tell this story of Jesus taking his followers on a hike to the top of a mountain. Then things start to get weird. Jesus was transfigured. If you want to know what that means, Matthew describes it as his face shining like the sun and his clothes dazzling white – that must have been quite a feat for his dusty clothes to look like they had just been soaked in Clorox after a long hike! Before they can process this, Moses and Elijah join the group. Moses has been dead for 1200 years and Elijah for 800. It sounds like something out of a movie! If that wasn’t enough, Peter is ready to take action and says, “We should build three buildings to celebrate.” But he is interrupted by a talking cloud that says, “This is my Son, the beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him.” We have heard that before…at Jesus’ baptism, God speaks from the clouds and tells everyone that Jesus is the beloved Son. This time, a line is added, “listen to him.”
That is more than the followers can take; they fall to the ground in fear. Jesus reaches down and touches them, telling them they don’t need to be afraid. When they get up the cloud is quiet, Moses and Elijah are gone and they have to decide what to do next. Jesus tells them not to tell anyone. Maybe they wonder if it really happened. What in the world do they do with an experience like this one?
As I read this text, I keep hearing the call to listen. We may not think of listening as action. In fact, few people have the patience to listen because they are too busy trying to get things done. But what if we understood that one powerful action we can take is listening? When is the last time you really listened to someone?
Yesterday, a large group from around the city gathered for a forum on immigration. We listened to the story of a man named Daniel. Daniel came with his family at age 9 from Mexico. He didn’t want to come to the United States. After arriving here, he had to stay inside for many years. It was sad to think of this boy who left his home to come to a strange place and then having to stay inside. Now this is his home. He loves it here. His story reminded us how important it is to listen to the stories of those who are coming to the United States. One thing we all share is a longing for home.
I am thinking about listening as we prepare for the season of Lent. I am thinking about listening for the voice of God. I am thinking about listening to one another…it is how we become a community. I am thinking about listening to those who are different. It is how we grow. Today I want to honor one of the best teachers I have had – a man who taught me about listening.
In January of 2004, I came to Albuquerque from Oregon to interview for a job at the Samaritan Counseling Center directing a spiritual renewal program for clergy and congregations. I stayed at the Norbertine Center in the south valley and was taken on a tour by the Joel, the prior and Fran. Fran was a contemplative priest and Fran would be the co-leader on the retreats I led for the next several years. The word tour conjures images of souvenir t-shirts, snapping lots of photos, and ice cream. But that wasn’t what this tour was. It was an introduction to the place that would be my spiritual home for the next ten years. Every piece of art had a story. The architecture was very intentional. It is a beautiful place with many spaces to listen for God.
There was something about Fran. I felt like I had met a holy man. I’m not exactly sure what that means, but in Fran, I could feel God. In the context of the story today, I can hear God saying to me in that moment, “listen to him.” Fran led our retreats using a meditative writing process. People would follow Fran’s prompts and write from their heart. Then they were invited to read their writing aloud. Fran could listen to them read several paragraphs and then he would say, “I heard a mantra in your writing.” He would repeat the seven syllables and I would count on my fingers to check if it was really seven. I never could figure out how out of all that he had heard, he could single out seven syllables. Fran listened and because of his ability to hear the soulful expression underneath the words, many people experienced healing on those retreats. Fran is in his last days. I am deeply grateful for him and for all the lives he has touched with his listening heart.
When something amazing happens and we wonder what to do next, it may be that the next right answer is to listen. When something devastating happens, perhaps we should listen. When we feel stuck or lost, listening can show us the way forward. Next Sunday, we begin groups for the season of Lent. We are using Eric Elnes book Gifts of the Dark Wood. I believe that groups are vital for congregations and one of the primary reasons is to the chance to listen – to God, to one another, and to what is most true in each of us. I hope you will sign up for a group and listen for the things that connect us to one another.
I keep thinking of feminist theologian Nelle Morton who coined the phrase “hearing into speech.” In my feminist theology class in seminary, we practiced that method by talking in small groups and making space for each voice to be heard. It was in that setting that I realized how valuable it was to make room for voices and to listen until all are heard. One of the most beautiful things I do is listen to your stories. One of the most important things we do as a community is listen.
Listening has taken me from Texas to Louisiana to Georgia to Oregon to New Mexico. Listening brought us together three years ago. I realized as I prepared for this sermon that these are the same texts I preached on for my first sermon here in 2014. March 1st is our 3rd anniversary together. I read that sermon again and I want to finish today with some of the things I said to you then:
“I’ve been thinking about our life together. You have a long rich history – some of you remember decades of that and others remember weeks of it. We are beginning a new chapter together. I imagine us climbing the mountain together. I have no idea what we will find. Perhaps there will be clouds and voices. Perhaps some of us will glow. We may build some things. We may be afraid sometimes. We will most certainly come down the mountain into the ordinariness of our life together. We will surely face painful moments – the loss of beloved friends, tragedy that strikes unexpectedly, a financial crisis. There is so much on our horizon together, so much that we can’t yet see. I am excited to make this journey with you. I am eager to walk with you and hear your stories. I am happy to serve the community with you and live our mission and be surprised along the way when we glance up and find God is in our midst.
One interesting observation in the story is that we glimpse two sides of God. We encounter this magnificent, mind-blowing, cloud speaking, glowing God. God is vast and amazing and beyond comprehension. But we also witness Jesus reaching out and touching the disciples who were terrified. They have fallen to the ground and he touches them. This same God comes to us in the most intimate, compassionate ways and says, “I am with you. I am with you in beauty. I am with you in pain. I am with you when you are afraid. You are never alone.” This God meets us and walks with us in all things.
Today, we climb the mountain and witness the mystery of God and know that we will come down off the mountain. My commitment to you is that I will journey with you in all things. I will climb the mountain and stay curious about what we will discover together. I will stop and breathe in the goodness and mystery with you. I will be with you in the pain and suffering. I will be open to whatever God calls us to do and with you, I will trust even when I am afraid.
In the text study group this week, it was noted that Moses went up the mountain alone, but Jesus took disciples with him. I like that. I am grateful that we do this together and we do it knowing that God is with us every step of the way.”