Exodus 34:29-35; Luke 9:28-43a
Good morning. A couple weeks ago I decided to clean out my wallet. I had too many business cards and discount cards for restaurants and coffee shops that I may never visit again. As I was purging these items from my wallet, I found a fortune from a fortune cookie. I don’t usually save these things, unless they’re somehow funny. This one says: “Sometimes traveling to a new place leads to great transformation.”
For the life of me, I can’t remember when I got this fortune, but I’m sure it was sometime before I moved out of Pittsburgh. Did I get this fortune after I accepted the offer to come to Freehold? Or did I get it in the early stages of my call search? I don’t know. Either way, it’s a reminder that this will all work out. My challenge is to respond in faith to the opportunities that the Holy Spirit presents.
Our reading this morning is Luke’s account of the transfiguration. This story is also about responding in faith, though in this case, it’s about listening to Jesus, rather than falling in with the movement of the Holy Spirit.
If you grew up in the Church, this is a familiar story. It comes up in the Lectionary on the Sunday before the beginning of Lent. Jesus ascends the mountain with his closest disciples, Peter, James, and John. And they see something miraculous: they see Jesus transfigured; they see a vision of Elijah and Moses. The disciples are frightened and Peter says, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Then they hear the voice of God saying of Jesus, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” Finally, they come down from the mountain, but they don’t tell anybody what they witnessed.
I always had a problem with that part of the story. I couldn’t figure out why they kept their silence. Doesn’t this prove Jesus’ greatness? Doesn’t this prove that he’s the Son of God? Why keep it silent? But Peter, James, and John wanting to build dwelling places for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, I get that completely. They have seen Jesus’ glory and they want to remain in that place as long as they can.
I get that. It makes sense and it fits with my experiences of church. We love glory, and I learned this when I first started preaching. I did a lot of pulpit supply in the year or so before I was ordained. Most of my gigs were in small, rural churches in western Pennsylvania, and most were only served by part-time pastors.
On those Sunday mornings when I didn’t have trouble finding the church and I got there early, one of the elders would give me a tour. And on those tours, that elder would always take me to the church’s trophy case. Every. Blessed. Time! And that elder would tell me all about the great softball team or bowling team that the church once had. There were so many trophies. Men’s softball: 1968, 1974, 1977, 1980; women’s bowling, 1983—we should have won it in 1984, too, but Joan Smith broke her wrist in a car accident a day before the final match, and, well, Second Presbyterian beat us. Again.
Sometimes the stories dragged on and on. And I’d smile and pretend to be interested, but all I heard was, “Our church used to be great!” That would always be followed by, “I wish we could get some young families in here again.” These were areas where there used to be lots of jobs in agriculture or coal mining, but as the jobs dried up, the young people with skills moved away. There were precious few young families in those little towns. As a famous resident of Freehold once said: “Glory days, they’ll pass you by."
So, sure, I understand why Peter, James, and John want to stay on the mountaintop, basking in God’s glory. What’s harder to understand is why they don’t want to share stories of what they saw, or why they don’t sit back and try to recapture a little of the glory.
But the story doesn’t end with Jesus and the disciples coming down from the mountaintop. The story continues with Jesus meeting a crowd of people. From that crowd, a man tells Jesus that his son is possessed by an unclean spirit. The man asked the disciples to cast out the unclean spirit, but they were unable to do so. Then Jesus casts out the spirit, “and all were astounded at the greatness of God.”
Taken together—the story of the transfiguration and the healing of the boy with the unclean spirit—these two stories explain why Peter, James, and John kept silent about literally seeing the glory of God. The message for us is to show people the greatness of God, rather than tell people about the greatness of God.
The experience of watching the transfiguration was shared by exactly three people: Peter, James, and John. The other disciples probably would have believed the story. Maybe people in the crowds would have believed the story, too. But God didn’t tell them to share the story; God told them to listen to Jesus. So, instead of telling people what they saw, they simply follow Jesus—down the mountainside and into the crowd of people, where Jesus, the Son of God, the word of God made flesh, heals the child with an unclean spirit. Jesus shows that he’s the Messiah.
Over a year ago, when I first set foot in this church, Bill Kelly and Doug Craig gave me a tour. I was really glad to see that there were no old trophy cases. There are some artifacts from our past displayed at the back of our sanctuary, but I think those items are fundamentally different from trophies for church-league softball. The pictures of our youth mission trips that line the back hallway are similar to trophies, but as long as we keep sending groups of people out on mission trips—as long as it’s an ongoing activity—then it’s not a trophy. It’s a part of our current story, rather than a story about our glorious past.
But even if we’re not busy reminiscing about our glory days, we have something in common with those congregations who show off old trophy cases. Like them, we’re still hoping that unicorns, I mean, young families, will magically walk in our doors, looking for a church home. We hope they’ll come in, see the pictures of our mission trips, do the happy dance, and shout for joy because they’ve found a church home.
Instead of telling people what a wonderful church home this is, we have to show them. We have to engage people where they are, listen to them, and then show them how we have been transformed by the love of Christ, and how we continue to participate in the transforming work of Christ.
That’s the thing about the transfiguration. We hear this story in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. We hear it every year because we need to change. Always. The German theologian Karl Barth adapted a Latin phrase that was used during the Reformation: ecclesia reformatta, semper reformanda. That means, the church reformed, always reforming. Barth was saying that the work of the Protestant Reformation is an ongoing task. Just like the transfiguration. We must always be transformed by our participation in the work of Jesus. Transformation is an ongoing process. We are not called to build dwelling places for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, nor are we called to build trophy cases to celebrate our glorious past.
We’re called to look within and discern where God is leading us. We’re called to follow Jesus down the mountainside to meet the people where they are, and as we find them. We’re also called to follow Jesus outside of the sanctuary. We’re called to listen to Jesus and listen to all of the people outside of this building. And we’re called to love them, as God loves them, because God loves them. Thanks be to God. Amen!
Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to follow Jesus, down from the mountaintop and outside of this building, and meet people where they are, as we find them. Remember, too, that we are called to the ongoing work of transformation. So, go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!