‘A Change in What Is Seen’

Executive Director Brian Ellison delivered this sermon at University Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas, on the Transfiguration of the Lord, Sunday, March 3, 2019.

Click here to listen to audio of the sermon.

Text: Luke 9:28-43

I grew up in the little town of Puyallup, Washington, just 40 miles from the summit of Mount Rainier, the crown jewel of Washington’s Cascade range. It was a very prominent part of the scene out my living room window and part of the skyline for a good portion of the state. It was the European explorers who reached the area around 1792 who named it Mount Rainier. Long before that, it was known to all the local Native Americans by the Puyallup tribe’s word for it, Tahoma, or as those same settlers thought they heard, Tacoma.

We learned growing up there that those Native Americans had understood the mountain in divine and very personal terms, and frankly it wasn’t hard to see why. The mountain can appear and disappear rapidly as it is deceptively close but easily obscured by cloud cover. It looms there in the distance, almost keeping watch. To reach it by car you drive through forests so that glimpses of the mountain are fleeting, until suddenly when you get close to the mountain and then as you spend time there, perhaps camping in the national park, or hiking through the wildflower-filled meadows, it’s easy to be overcome by the awesome beauty and sheer incomparability of this piece of creation.

I remember as a young teenager, going up on Saturdays on a bus to ski in the foothills of the mountain. I admit that skiing wasn’t really my thing; I didn’t love the clunky boots or the cold or the wet. But I will never forget skiing into the evening after sunset, down quiet slopes that wound through the woods, illuminated by the brightest stars I had ever seen, fir trees towering on every side like piers of a cathedral, feeling alone but not lonely, utterly at peace.

When you are in that moment of open-mouthed awe on the mountain, it is hard to say why you’ve come, or what you expected to see when you got there. But we know it demands something of us—perhaps first and foremost, that we open our eyes. That we see what is there in front of us. And then, of course, that we go on living as what, in that moment, we have become.

* *

We’ve heard this morning about a moment in the story of Jesus’ journey – a journey that (as we hear) will eventually move to the cross, but in this moment follows a route that leads him up the mountain.

It really is a remarkable thing to imagine, isn’t it? As modern listeners, I imagine we bring varying degrees of skepticism to hearing this account. Some can close their eyes and pretend they were Peter or James or John. Some of the rest of us get distracted wondering just how much wine the disciples had had before all of this, or whether the elevation was getting to them.

But for a moment, at least, let’s take this story Luke is telling us at face value. Clearly something happened worthy of recounting, I’m struck by the unapologetic description of something difficult to comprehend. The flashiness and gaudiness of the whole thing. The way each part of the picture draws the storyteller’s gaze – Jesus’ face, his clothes, the sky, the cloud, the men, the voice.

And as impressive as what they see and what they hear, I’m actually less interested in the pyrotechnics than I am in the disciples’ reaction to it all.

For one thing it doesn’t seem clear to me that they’re having an entirely positive experience. There is Peter’s confusing comment – apparently, he was confused himself – about building little tents for the spiritual forebears who have made an unscheduled appearance. But there is something else in their reaction, something that stands out even more to me.

Having been confronted with this remarkable display of Jesus’ special connection with the Almighty—”This is my Son,” the voice says, “the Chosen”—having seen in the most convincing way possible (one would think) that the one they have been following has the power to do and undo, to renew and heal, to fulfill promises and usher in transformation, the disciples main reaction is to shut down. They keep silent. They tell no one what they have seen.

Why would they do that?

I mean, wouldn’t we go charging down the mountain and say “You’ll never believe this, but Jesus just … and the cloud .. and the dazzling white cloths … and the…”? Wouldn’t you then go running back up to Jesus and say like the 2-year-old who sees you disappear behind the peek-a-boo blanket and reappear, “Again! Do it again!”? Wouldn’t we go out and start proclaiming Jesus and his reign in every synagogue and street corner?

But the disciples kept silent in those days, and told no one of what they had seen.

It’s not that the disciples don’t know what they’ve seen, or even that they don’t understand its importance. In fact, I think it’s precisely the opposite. They do know. They do understand. It’s just that they are unable to reconcile what they have seen with the reality of the world around them. It’s that even after they have seen it, their mind undergoes a sort of revisionism: “It can’t be that.” It sounds like before they even got back to the foot of the mountain, they were already overwhelmed by the brokenness of the world, the magnitude of suffering. They were already underselling the power of God to heal and restore and their calling to be agents of that transformative work.

All of which Luke sums with: But the disciples kept silent.

Sound familiar?

* *

This week, as you no doubt have heard, the United Methodist Church held a special meeting of its General Conference in St. Louis. On the agenda, several possible answers to a single question: What to do about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people who want to serve, lead and marry in the United Methodist Church.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) faced similar questions over much of the last couple of generations. So have Baptists and Lutherans and Episcopalians and, well, really anyone in any tradition that dares to talk about things that are difficult. Most of us have come to answer these questions by saying regional bodies and individual congregations may include LGBTQ people in their life and leadership. This week, in spite of the efforts of many beloved Methodist friends who did everything they could to promote justice and love, the church went the other way.

The organization I serve, the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, was a major player in our denomination’s conversations over the past 22 years. We always wanted to see a church that was fully inclusive of LGBTQ  people in its life and leadership, even as we wanted the church to get there together, and whole, committed to mutuality and unity even as we worked our way through disagreement.  It was glorious four years ago to be at a Presbyterian conference in Chicago with hundreds of friends when the votes came in from the 87th presbytery to affirm same-sex marriage, ensuring that it would be allowed in our churches, not just the culmination of a lot of hard work but a day of joy and relief and affirmation for people who had been hurting. It felt like a powerful revelation of the grace and love and justice of God. It was transformative.

Maybe that’s why it was so painful this week to watch the suffering and sadness of so many of our Methodist siblings, who wanted so desperately to reach an outcome that was just and honoring of God’s gifts in God’s people, while still allowing their denomination to bear witness to God’s love together. Theirs is a grief—and an ongoing struggle—that won’t be over any time soon.

Thank God that day the Presbyterian votes came in our brokenness was healed, our struggle was over! … Or was it?

Standing there in Chicago at the top of the mountain with the people applauding and the glasses being raised, even with the last wisps of holy cloud dispersing to reveal the twinkling starlight, the divine voice still echoing through the valleys, already we were being tempted to rethink what had been seen. LGBTQ people in the church still were not welcome everywhere … and they still aren’t. There are presbyteries and churches that won’t ordain them. Sessions and ministers who won’t marry them. Plenty of honest disagreement that persists without conversation that anyone would call healthy. Our struggle wasn’t really over.

In fact, so many things are not really ever “over.” We want them to be – I want them to be – but they aren’t.

We want the hungry to be fed. But no amount of generations of food pantries and government programs and giving our dollars to homeless has made the world full.

We want discrimination to be a thing of the past in our government and our schools and our military and our workplaces. But instead we live in a time where racist demonstrations are on the increase, out in the open before our eyes, and where hiring discrimination hasn’t declined in the past 25 years.[1]

We want the gospel to be heard and lived with joy and fullness everywhere by everyone, but at times the world looks bleaker from where we stand on the mountaintop.

No wonder Peter wanted to stay up there.

Yes, you and I know the power of God to heal and redeem. We have seen God’s glory in the face of a newborn or the grace of the dying. In votes cast or in hearts opened. And yet … in our homes, in our workplaces, at our school, in our daily living, how often have we kept silent in the face of injustice or falsehood? It is easier, safer, to let the racist remark go uncorrected, to let the motivations go unexamined, to let the hungry remain unfed at least by us at least for now. Yes, we could act, but it would be a drop in the bucket, and would it really matter anyway?

And so the disciples kept silent, and in those days told no one what they had seen.

We know, of course, that the silence has consequences, too. The injustice persists. The hurt endures. Life is less abundant for some of God’s children than it ought to be. But that may not even be the worst part.

The most crushing blow of our silence may be to our sense of who we are as God’s people. As disciples.

Because when there is a disconnect because the power of what we have seen in Jesus and the power we think it offers us to speak about it, when we hold an astonishing conviction that we have found the truth but we have deactivated our mouths and hands from acting on that conviction, then we are Peter babbling about building tents for Elijah. Then we are disciples who stand helpless as demons afflict God’s beloved ones in the shadow of the mountain. Then we squander the privilege of access to the Almighty and replace it with the helplessness of those who can’t find their way out of an unlocked house.

So how then do we see at the bottom of the mountain what we saw with such clarity at the top?

Maybe the answer – our way out of the trees and down the mountain – is to rethink the reason for the demonstration of power we have seen. Maybe the transfiguration for those first disciples, and maybe the revelation that each of us disciples has had that brought us into this community in the first place was not for us, but to build up others. Maybe our encounter with Jesus was not supposed to be so much a comforting embrace but a kick-in-the-pants. Maybe rather than building dwelling places, it was an occasion for burning down the house.

Friends, both the hope and the challenge of the transfiguration is that we no longer can settle for the status quo and the exhausting oppression of low expectations. Transfiguration is the moment that compels disciples to expect transformative, overpowering God-presence in the community we inhabit, in the lives of those around us. To believe that we will be present for it. Indeed, that God will make it happen through us.

* *

The disciples come down the mountain to discover that the world, just as they thought, is still broken. The father of a demon-possessed boy presents him for healing. We are told that the disciples couldn’t do it, even after the man’s begging. And when Jesus finally heals the boy himself — another great display of power — we are told the people were astounded at the greatness of God.

Having seen the transforming power of God, how will we live so that through us, the people will come to be astounded by God’s greatness?

Only in confronting the world’s brokenness with courage do we heal it.

Only by living out the power of the transfiguration do we meet the earth’s Ash Wednesday existence, seeing its sin and mortality redeemed with the promise of life beyond death.

Only by speaking—breaking our silence—does the bread we break nourish us into being the true presence, the body of the risen Christ in the world.

May we not keep silence. May we so live. May it be so. Amen.

 

[1] Harvard Business Review, 2017: https://hbr.org/2017/10/hiring-discrimination-against-black-americans-hasnt-declined-in-25-years, accessed March 1, 2019


In February, University Presbyterian Church’s Session adopted a statement welcoming and affirming people of all sexual orientations and gender expressions. Its pastor, Rev. Matt Gaventa, is a member of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians Board of Directors.

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