Exodus 24:12-18; Matthew 17:1-9
Good morning. My sermon title was inspired by the movie Field of Dreams. I would guess that most of you saw this movie, but in case you didn’t, or in case you’ve forgotten it, the premise is that a farmer in Iowa, who’s played by Kevin Costner, hears a voice out of nowhere. The voice tells him, “Build it and they will come.” He decides that he has to tear out his corn field and build a baseball field.
Everyone thinks he’s crazy, but Costner builds the field anyhow. The outfield wall is the rest of Costner’s corn field. After the field is built, some long-dead baseball players walk out of the cornstalks and onto the field, and then they play baseball. When they’re done playing, one of the players, Shoeless Joe Jackson, turns to Costner and asks, “Is this heaven?” To which Costner replies, “No, it’s Iowa.”
This morning’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew has the same dreamlike quality as the movie Field of Dreams, except our story is set on a mountain. Peter, James, and John go up a mountain with Jesus. They see Jesus transfigured; they see Moses and Elijah; they want to build three dwelling places so they can remain in the moment. Then they hear the voice of God saying: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
If you were raised in the church, this is a familiar story. In the liturgical calendar, it marks the end of the season of Epiphany. In fact, it’s the final epiphany—Peter, James, and John, the disciples who are closest to Jesus, now know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Jesus is the Son of God. They saw all the healings, they heard all of Jesus’ sermons, but now they know. And they’re scared!
This is a major turning point in the story of Jesus’ life and ministry, and it happens on a mountain. The location is important. In the ancient Near East, and in many other cultures, too, mountains were considered thin places—places where there was less separation between the human and the divine; places that were distant from the noise and distractions of society.
It’s not an accident that Moses goes up Mt. Sinai to meet God and receive the Ten Commandments. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus preaches his first sermon on a mountain. In fact, Matthew sets the scene of the Sermon on the Mount so that Jesus appears to be like Moses. So, mountains are important.
The story of the Transfiguration also marks the turning of the season from Epiphany to Lent. And the story of Lent uses the images of mountains as bookends. At the beginning of the transition, we see the image of Jesus transformed into a radiant white, bathed in God’s glory. Then, at the end of Lent, we see the broken Jesus, nailed to a cross, atop a hill called Calvary.
The first image, Jesus transfigured, is how the disciples want to see Jesus; it’s probably how they want to remember him, too. The second image, the suffering Christ is not what any of them, or any of us, want to see. Yet both pictures, both images are true! It’s no wonder the disciples want to remain in that moment of glory and light. They’re afraid of what they’re going to have to do when they come down from the mountain; they’re afraid of telling the story. It’s quite a responsibility. Jesus gives them a short reprieve: they’re not to tell anyone until Jesus dies and is raised from the dead.
I think we’re so much like the disciples. We’re also afraid to tell the story of Jesus and we want to dwell in the parts of the story we like. We want to remain in the glory and the light. We don’t want to come down from the mountain. When we’re up there, beholding Jesus in all his glory, we don’t have to deal with all of the people who find this story confusing or hard to believe. On the mountain, everything seems to make sense.
It seems like nothing makes sense anymore. We live in the era of I-just-can’t-even. You know what I’m talking about, right? Sometimes dealing with other people seems like too much work. The rules are constantly changing. It feels like we’re living in junior high. We want to stay on the mountain.
When I was a kid, I played a lot of video games. Don’t judge! The Atari Video Computer System was released when I was in first grade. By the time I was in fourth grade, every kid in my neighborhood had one. Don’t get me wrong, I also played sports and rode bikes with my friends. My childhood wasn’t all video games, all the time. But, by the time I was in middle school and junior high, my mountaintop was the video arcade at the mall.
In middle school and junior high, it seems like the social rules are always changing. I felt like I didn’t fit in and I couldn’t figure out how to make things right. I realize now that everyone felt that way, but at the time, it was exhausting, bordering on hopeless. But in the arcade, all the games had well-defined rules. And if I didn’t like a game, I didn’t have to play it. Unlike social life at school.
I should add that church wasn’t much better when I was a kid. I was confirmed in the old-money Presbyterian church in my hometown. There were a lot of snobby rich kids in that congregation. I was always wearing the wrong shoes or the wrong jeans.
My point is not to tell you how rough I had it. I didn’t have it all that tough; my childhood was mostly happy. My main point is that going outside of these walls is scary; it feels like the world doesn’t understand what we’re saying anymore. And sometimes it feels like we’re in junior high or middle school and we feel like we don’t fit in. My other point is to remind you that the past wasn’t always as good as it seems.
In our gospel story, Peter, James, and John are overcome with fear; they have learned, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Jesus is the Son of God. They now know that they’re following the Messiah. Emanuel. God with us. As they realize this, they fall to the ground in fear.
And what does Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, do? He reaches out to his disciples; he touches Peter, James, and John. Then he tells them: “Get up and do not be afraid.” In the human Jesus, God could be known and seen and touched. Here, Jesus uses the power of touch to take away their fears; he equips them to continue the work of Jesus’ ministry. The disciples know that God is with them. They know they are loved.
Unlike the disciples, we do not have the direct experience of Jesus. Yet we, too, are equipped with the love of God. We have the power to share that love within this congregation and with the world outside of our walls. And we have all the love and all the power that we need right now.
A few months after I moved to Freehold, I found a place in Red Bank called Yestercades. Are any of you familiar with it? It’s a vintage arcade. Instead of plunking quarters into the machines, you pay by the hour to play all the old-school video games you want.
I don’t remember how long I played the first time I was there, but it was glorious. I’m sure my face was transfigured by the lights of the arcade. It was all of the fun that I remembered; I was in touch with a happy place from my childhood. It was pure nostalgia.
I’ve been back several times, but you know what? Each time I go there, it’s a little bit less fun. Each time I go there, it’s a reminder of just how long it’s been since I was a young kid, seeking refuge in an arcade. Each time I go there, it’s a reminder that I can’t live in the past.
I mention all this because in the church, we love to live in the past. We love to live in the glory of having 200 or 300 people in worship. We love to live in the glory of a youth group with 25 or 35 kids, or a confirmation class of twelve or fifteen every year. We think we need all the programming we used to have.
Jesus calls us to make disciples, to baptize and teach. We are equipped for that work because we have the love of God with us. And it’s right here, right now! We continue to baptize and teach. We’re going to celebrate the sacrament of baptism on March 15th and we’re probably going to celebrate another baptism in April or May. And it appears that we now have enough people who are interested in membership to hold another new members’ class.
We also have four young people in our confirmation class. They’re learning a lot and they’re having a lot of fun while they’re learning. But don’t take my word for it. Ask them yourself! As some of you have already learned, I have asked the students to interview members of this congregation. So, go find one of our confirmands and sit down for an interview. You’ll enjoy it, too!
These are some of the many ways that we teach and make disciples. I think we’re doing a pretty good job. I see young people who are really engaged as they attend Sunday school and confirmation classes, and also as they prepare for this summer’s mission trip. I see young families drifting into our orbit, as well as baby boomers. We’re doing well, and we can do even more. All we have to do is come down from the mountain and share the love of God with the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Now, Beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to come down from the mountain share our blessings with all people. Go forth and be instruments of God’s love and peace 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. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!