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In the Moment

(a sermon for March 3, 2019. the Last Sunday after Epiphany and Transfiguration Sunday, based on Luke 9:28-36)

Some years ago I was the officiant at a wedding at which there were eight – eight (!) – professional photographers commemorating the event!

Now, the reason for this was not because it was any kind of celebrity wedding invaded by paparazzi (!) but rather because the couple in question had won the grand prize at a bridal show some months before! And despite my initial misgivings – after all, from a pastor’s perspective it’s one thing to have a photographer in the sanctuary taking pictures all through the wedding ceremony but quite another to have eight of them crawling around (!) – it turned out to be a worthwhile experience for everyone involved.  Not only were these photographers all true professionals and not at all disruptive but each one had his or her own specialty and brought a unique artistic eye to the celebration which made for a one of a kind portfolio of wedding pictures.

Afterward one of the photographers, I guess as a way of saying thanks for granting them full access, sent me a packet of some of the photos they’d taken around the church that day; and they were all amazing!  But as good as the formal portraits and the ceremonial pictures all were, I have to say that hands down my favorites were all the candid shots: you know; the pictures that got taken when nobody was looking.  You might remember a few weeks ago we were talking here about how old photos have a way not only of revealing how we were back in the day but also tend to show who we are; well, these candid shots were the wedding pictures that showed forth the true joy of two people deeply in love and of the people who love them!

Actually, you know, the only problem I’ve ever had with someone taking pictures or shooting a video at a wedding is that I don’t want the bride and groom to be distracted from what’s happening.  After all, whether it’s a professional photographer doing the job or somebody’s clicking off a shot on their cel phones, when we notice that someone’s about to take our picture it’s only human to suddenly feel a little self-conscious!   Oh, no… were my eyes closed?  Was my tongue sticking out?  Is my hair alright?  Let’s try this again; I’ll be ready to smile properly next time!  It’s a perfectly normal response, but it’s too bad to have one’s mind wander to such things at a time when the bride and groom ought to be wholly focused on each other (of course!), on God (hopefully!), and on this quintessential moment of their lives!  Better to be wholly in the moment; to revel in it and to soak in every feeling, every nuance of it; because it’s a moment that will pass in a heartbeat, and this is what you’re going to want to remember!  In fact, I remember one young couple, and this was years ago, who were determined not to have any pictures or video taken at all – professional or otherwise – during the wedding ceremony itself precisely because it was for them a unique and sacred time and they wanted the memory of it to remain solely in their minds and hearts.  As they explained it to me at the time, they wanted to be wholly “in the moment,” so that moment could indeed be holy.

The truth is that such moments are not reserved merely for wedding days or, for that matter, for baptisms and funerals, graduations and retirements or any one of countless other major life events I could name.  What we know in faith, friends, is that there are holy, truly sacramental moments that can happen to us almost anywhere and at any time; God’s presence and power is to be seen and heard and felt in all of the varied and utterly wondrous experiences of our lives.  But the question is, how often in our all-too-human preoccupation with things nonessential do we end up missing out on that divine presence and what it means for our lives?  When have we been not wholly “in the moment,” and thus lose a moment that is holy?

Our text for this morning is Luke’s account of a holy moment that was truly one of a kind: the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain.  Scripturally speaking, this a story that actually reveals a great deal about Jesus: about his power and authority; about his being the fulfillment of all that is contained in the Law and what was promised by the prophets; and about his quite literally being the light which was coming into the world (C.S. Lewis actually said it quite well when he described the transfigured Jesus as “the light streaming forth from God just as light is emitted from a lamp.”).  It’s also another story of divine proclamation, in which Jesus is affirmed as God’s own Son, “the Chosen,” one whose word was to be heeded.  So as such, this story of the transfiguration is of a true “holy moment;” but that said, we also need to add that it’s also a story about how those three disciples on the mountain with him – James, John,  and most especially Peter – were very nearly not “in the moment” at all!

As Luke recounts the story, Jesus and the three disciples had gone “up on the mountain to pray,” and that “while he was praying, the appearance of [Jesus’] face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.”  And in the midst of that light, two great men of faith – Moses and Elijah – appear “in glory” and they speak with Jesus about “his departure,” (actually, by the way, in the original Greek, “his exodus”), that is, what was about to befall him now that Jesus had turned his face toward Jerusalem.  Now, while all this is going on we’re told that Peter, James and John are all “weighed down with sleep;” so that in and of itself tells us that their attention to what was happen was “fuzzy” at best; but even though it must have seemed to be something like a dream to them, they were at least awake enough to see and behold this glorious and radiant moment.  But then, what’s the first thing that Peter says as the moment draws to a close and Moses and Elijah are departing?  “Master, is this great or what!”  (That’s my translation, by the way!)  Quick, Peter blurts out without thinking, “’Let’s build three memorials: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’” [The Message]  What Peter wants to do is to build a monument;  so to somehow capture this incredible moment so it could last forever (no doubt if this had happened today, Peter would have been the one recording the whole thing on his cel phone to post online!).

To be fair, Luke is quick to point out that Peter didn’t know what he was saying; but as that Peter had immediately become so focused on trying to preserve the moment, he wasn’t in the moment the way he could have been, and should have!  Perhaps this is one reason why almost as soon as Peter had uttered those words, a dark cloud swept over the mountain “and overshadowed them” to such an extent that all three of the disciples were immediately moved from awe to sheer terror;  and why in the moment that followed all they heard was the sound of a heavenly voice saying to them, “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!”

The thing about “holy moments,” you see, is they include at least two main components: the first is the moment itself – in which the divine enters wholly into our experience and demands our whole attention – and the second is where that moment ultimately and inevitably leads us.  At a wedding, for instance, the “moment” is all about love expressed and vows exchanged; but where it leads, what follows after the wedding kiss, is the marriage itself and the forging of a loving relationship over the course of many years.  A truly holy moment, whatever it might entail, includes both what is and what’s to come and in the end that’s what Peter and the other two disciples were missing.  They were so busy seeking to preserve that truly mountaintop experience that they were totally missing what even in that moment was being revealed about what awaited them in the valley below.  Actually, considering the fact that the gospels were composed well after the resurrection of Jesus, and given that we’re also told by Luke that after their shared experience on the mountain the disciples “kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen,” you have to wonder if any of them really understood at all what had just happened to them; or if years later – after Jerusalem, after the cross, after the empty tomb – there was another moment when they looked at one another and said, “Oh, yes; that’s what was happening!”

It’s very fitting that this particular story is one that’s traditionally shared by the church on the Sunday at the end of the season of Epiphany and just before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of our shared Lenten journey to the cross.  Epiphany is all about the “holy moments” of Jesus’ coming into the world and our discovery of what that means for our lives and our living; it’s about Jesus calling us follow him, to leave everything to be his disciples and be fishers of people.  But the season of Lent is about where those discoveries are going to lead us; it’s all about coming to understand that that being his disciples also means taking up our crosses to do so.  It’s the other component of all the holy moments that are ours in following Jesus, and the point for you and me today is, just like those three disciples up there on the mountaintop, that it’s often a difficult thing to discern where and to what Christ would lead us as his disciples.  More often than not, you see, the answers we’re seeking as what’s to happens next don’t come to us in a burst of shimmering glory, but rather in the small bits of revelation that come to us along the journey.  Faith is a journey, beloved; discipleship is developed and deepened by the pathways we choose to walk.  But I would suggest to you this morning that it all begins by being wholly “in the moment” with the one who calls us forth.  For how are we to walk with our Lord, even unto the cross, if we don’t first attune ourselves to his presence and his power?

It is interesting to note that the Greek word we translate as “transfiguration,” admittedly not a term that we use every day, is actually metamorphose, which is where we get our word “metamorphosis.”  It’s not only an apt description of the “shimmery and shiny” appearance of Jesus on that mountaintop, but it also serves to describe what happens in these (holy) moments with our Lord; indeed, it is in the times that we spend alone with God in prayer and in the eloquent reflection of our souls before God that we also are transfigured, and thus transformed.  While our outer selves might not shine a dazzling white as did Jesus, within our hearts we do shine; and in the process we undergo a metamorphosis, becoming persons and a people who are equipped and empowered to walk with Christ along the adventurous way of faithful discipleship.

In another wonderful quote of his, C.S. Lewis once compared our own discipleship to… an egg; which, whatever else you can say about an egg, never ever stays the same.  Either, wrote Lewis, that egg is being transformed into a chicken, or else it slowly and inevitably rots away.  Much the same can be said for you and me in our faith:  either we are growing in our experience with God – in character, in knowledge, in maturity, in wisdom, in action – or because of our inattention to everything that God has set before us, we find ourselves missing out on that which is good and purposeful and full of the glory that comes from a walk with the Lord.

I pray that as our journey continues, yours and mine, that we will be attentive to God’s presence and power as we go.  May we truly be in the moment with our Lord, even now as we begin our journey with him to the cross; ever heeding that voice speaking to us as surely as it spoke from that particular mountaintop so many years ago:  “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

So might it be, friends… and thanks be to God.

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Uphill and Down

(a sermon for February 11, 2018, the Last Sunday after Epiphany, based on 1 Kings 19:9-18 and Mark 9:2-9)

It was a powerful moment; that much is for certain, one that up to that point had to have been the most profound experience of their entire lives.

And as Peter, James and John stood up there on the mountain with Jesus, they were stunned at what they were seeing; and yet at the same time fascinated, exhilarated and warmed to their very souls.  This was no less than glory itself; and as the three of them stood there amidst the brilliant and shimmering light of their teacher Jesus transfigured before them, watching him “in deep conversation” (The Message) with Elijah the prophet and with Moses (!), who could blame Peter for his excitement and for blurting out the very first thing that came into his head?  Mark’s account of this story tells us that Peter responded to all this by saying, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here,” but he might just as well have said, “Is this great or what?!”    Because he wanted to hold on to this experience forever! Let’s build three dwellings, three tents, he says, “one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah,” and then we can just stay right here and never have to leave!

Like I said, it was a powerful moment; and it’s all punctuated by a voice from heaven proclaiming, “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!”  and you can understand why they’d want to stay atop that mountain for as long as possible!

Of course, that doesn’t happen; for soon the vision fades, the glory dissipates, and once again it’s just the three of them there with Jesus.  And now it’s time to come down from the mountain and to get back to the intense daily realities of following Jesus: the long walks going from town to town; the throngs of people clamoring at Jesus’ feet, the cries of people looking for healing and teaching and love; it was so much more than anything they’d ever imagined back on that morning mending nets on the shore of the Galilean lake.  But this was the life they’d chosen (or, perhaps more accurately, the life they’d been chosen for), and it would go on now just as it had before; except that because of this glimpse of glory they’d received, everything was somehow different.  They were different.

One of the great “little pleasures” of ministry for me has always been those all too rare occasions when I happen to run into a couple at whose wedding I officiated a few months or even years before.  After all, the nature of pastoral ministry, to say nothing of the nature of life itself, is such that you sometimes just lose track of these couples, so it’s great to get caught up on what’s happened to them since that fateful day I got to join them in holy matrimony!  And there’s always stories to tell; but I always have to laugh that almost inevitably when I ask how they’re doing, one or the other will always answer, “Oh, we’re ‘old marrieds’ now!”

“Old marrieds!”  Now there’s a label for you!  It sounds kind of like “used car,” or “factory seconds,” doesn’t it?  I wonder, what does that even mean; “old marrieds?”  Certainly, it can’t mean that the experience of marriage has caused them to age pre-maturely (or at least I hope not!), and I do hope that it’s not an indication that the excitement and passion has gone out of their relationship!  No, I suspect that when they use the term “old marrieds” they’re telling me that over time and experience their marriage has become, well, familiar.

You know what I’m saying; now that the wedding and honeymoon is behind them, they’ve settled into this new daily routine of life that more than likely includes home, work, family… the whole thing.  Moreover, they’ve gotten used to each other’s little quirks of personality; maybe they’ve even set out to “adjust” a few of those qualities, in the other if not themselves!  They’ve probably already had times that they’ve grown closer together and other days they’ve felt like they’re drifting apart; and I’ve no doubt they faced more than a few challenges along the way.  And they’ve probably also come to realize, as I like to say to couples about to get married, that that stuff about “for better or worse, for richer or poorer” ain’t just boilerplate; it’s the ebb and flow of real life that enters into every marriage!

You see, the interesting thing about all of this is that no matter how glorious or memorable the wedding, eventually that day of celebration passes into memory, and life goes on pretty much as it did before; except that now, because of the marriage that’s been forged on that wonderful day – because of vows taken and commitments made – all of life and living is forever changed; and that’s because they’ve changed!

Well, I think that the message of the gospel this morning is that likewise, even as we carry the mantle of Christian discipleship life does indeed go on; and rest assured, friends, that combination of faith and life-as-we-know-it-and-actually-live-it is not always – if ever (!) – going to be easy.  But you see, it’s how we incorporate the glory of what it is we believe into the minutiae of daily life that gives that life meaning, purpose and joy!

The fact is, whereas we weren’t there on the mountain with Peter, James and John, we know all about mountain-top experiences, don’t we; those incredible moments of perfect clarity and insight that occasionally come along in our lives in which we are made profoundly aware of God’s presence and love.  For some of us, that experience came in times of great joy and elation: in the birth of our children; in moments of sudden inspiration and creativity; or when we discover for the first time a fellowship with the divine in the singing of a hymn or a saying of a prayer.  Or that experience may have come right in the midst of pain and strife: in the realization that your prayer for strength and healing was answered; in an inner peace that passes all understanding but somehow brought you through what you never thought you could endure.  These are moments that are both divine in their nature and utterly transformative; truly, this is, in every spiritual sense of the word, transfiguration.  It’s what it means to be up on life’s mountaintop when suddenly, without warning, God cracks open the crust that forms over daily life and suddenly we see, hear and feel God’s awesome presence.  And when that happens, it’s a truly glorious thing.

But the thing about mountaintop experiences is that they’re not meant to last forever.  It may indeed be glorious, but sooner or later the time is going to come when you have to walk down the hill and return to the valley from which you came.  David Lose writes that one of the most significant parts of the Transfiguration story is that “after all of what happened on the mountaintop… Jesus came back down.  Down to where the rest of the disciples are, down to where we are, down to the challenges of life ‘here below,’ down to the problems and discomforts and discouragements that are part and parcel of our life in this world.”

And that’s where we are called to go as well: as Jesus makes clear again and again in the gospels, true discipleship is not as much in what happens atop the mountain as in what we encounter down in the valley!  The way of Christ is the way of the cross – it’s no mistake, by the way, that on the Christian calendar, Transfiguration Sunday happens just before the beginning of Lent and our shared journey to that cross – and when we walk faithfully the way of the cross there will be, as we confess in our statement of faith, a cost as well as a joy in that discipleship.  But the thing is;  as disciples we do walk downhill and we face whatever comes; but not so much because the journey has changed, but rather because we have changed for the journey!

I’ve always loved that passage from 1 Kings we shared today; a beautiful and evocative piece in which God’s reassuring voice is heard not in the noise of wind, earthquake or fire, but rather in the “sound of sheer silence” that follows.  That’s a sermon in and of itself (!), but even given that, for me what’s most telling about this story is what brought Elijah to the cave in the first place; for you see, it was not faith as much as it was despair, and Elijah’s deep desire in that moment to quit being a prophet!  And you can understand why: nothing was working out right; the Israelites had forsaken God’s covenant, they’d torn down the altars of worship and now they were seeking to kill all prophets; including and especially Elijah himself!  So Elijah has fled to this cave, not only in fear for his life but also feeling utterly abandoned by God; he’s disillusioned and angry, and he cries out to God in despair, and as a great storm rages both outside and from within, Elijah waits for the Lord to answer… which God does… in the silence.

But did you notice that when God eventually does speak to Elijah, what he tells Elijah to do?  God tells Elijah… to go!  Whereas by our thinking the easiest and safest thing to do would have been for Elijah to stay holed up in that cave and safe from danger, God says, “Go!”  Get out of the cave, Elijah, and go back to the wilderness; go back and anoint Hazael as King over Aram; go down from this mountain and then wait to follow my lead.

While Elijah is looking at the failure of the moment, you see, God is looking at the big picture and the promise of a certain future that would transcend the success or even the failure of Elijah’s efforts.  God’s plan will unfold as God intends; and life within that plan will go on as before. So what matters most now is whether or not Elijah will choose to stay true to the task to which he is called; and if he’ll remember, even in the midst of risk and strife, that incredible moment of transformation and glory that led him to answer God’s call.  The question is whether or not Elijah will walk down the hill with the same kind of faith and determination with which he walked up!

Each one of us here is called to be disciples of Jesus Christ, but the truth is that Christ is Lord not only of the bright mountaintops of our lives, but also is the Lord of the shadowed valleys of living. If we are to follow Jesus where he goes, the pathway will not only wind through green pastures, but also through the briars and what my father used to call the “puckerbrush.”  If we’re to model ourselves after him, we’ll surely come to times of triumph, celebration and great certainty along the journey, but we’ll also come to crossroads of grief and despair in which we’ll find ourselves struggling to find the right answers.  And if we are to be true to him, we’ll reach out with love to others in the same place.

As Christians, ours is a day to day journey of faith that goes uphill and down; and as we seek to move forward in this life with some sense of God’s will for ourselves, our neighbor and our world, we do so never entirely sure of what’s beyond the next horizon.  But whatever happens, one thing is always for certain:  in our walk, wherever it leads, we have been the recipients of glory.  The movement of God’s own Spirit in our lives and faith has offered us a glimpse of how God’s own realm will be.  Truly, we are people of a promise that transcends any of the setbacks and the stumbling and the despairing we face as we go along the journey.  The only question is whether we’ll be true to that promise, whether we’ll take the risk to put one foot in front of the other and walk down the hill and into the valley.

Before long, our service of worship will be done for today, another Sunday will have passed and tomorrow it’ll be… Monday.   Soon enough – maybe even before the day is through – we’ll be back to life as usual – going back to work, buying groceries and doing the laundry – and the experience of our prayers and songs in this hour will be but a fading memory; at least until next week when we do it all again!  Truth is, life will go on pretty much the way it did before today; and yet, it’ll be different – it can’t help but be different – because by the gentle, graceful and utterly glorious touch of God, we’re different.

Beloved, in God’s purpose and plan, this week contains a wealth of possibilities for faith, service and love; but you see, we’ll only know what God can do in our lives if we are bold enough and trusting enough to let God’s glory us downhill and into the valley of life and faith.

Just go, God says to us, just keep walking; and always remember that you’ll never be along

Thanks be to God who in Jesus Christ walks with us on the journey.

AMEN and AMEN.

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on February 11, 2018 in Discipleship, Epiphany, Jesus, Life, Old Testament, Sermon

 

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Moments of Wonder

libertadIn the wee hours of an autumn morning way back in 1980, I was involved in an automobile accident.

It was during my senior year at the University of Maine, where I’d been working as a managing editor for the student newspaper; and in those days long before internet and email attachments made things much easier, it was my responsibility to deliver the layout flats for the next day’s paper to the printer in Ellsworth, a journey of some 40 miles from campus. As I’ve said, it was very late, but I was also wide awake and heavily caffeinated  (not to mention a whole lot younger then!) and doing fine; at least I was until I came around this blind curve and, despite swerving to avoid it, firmly struck a deer that had leapt out onto the road in front of me.

Now, I was not hurt at all and the car was not seriously damaged; even the deer was merely stunned and soon bounded back into the woods, none the worse for wear. Looking back on it, what could easily have been a tragic situation ended up little more than a fender bender, but even now what I remember is that the whole experience left me a bit shaken.

As I recall, however, it also had a rather humbling effect on me, and for an all-too-brief period of time I was not only profoundly aware of the fragile nature of human life (as one might expect), but also cognizant of my  very, very small place in the universe. For several days afterward I noticed the things and people around me like never before: I paid attention to the tiniest nuances of life and living, I wondered at the smell of the air, marveled at the sound of leaves crunching beneath my feet; and even took close notice of the beating of my own heart, all the while pondering who I was amidst all this wonder (I know… it was all rather dramatic, but hey, I was 21!).

Of course, as so often is the case in such situations, a day or two later I was back to “normal,” with all the wonder having melded back into the routine of my daily academic life. But I never did forget what it was to feel, even for a little while, so incredibly gifted with all that life and living has to offer and yet at the same time so utterly unworthy of all of its blessings.

Actually, as it turned out there would be a number of other times in my life that I would feel that way again: the day that Lisa and I were married; the moments when my three children were born; at my ordination to the Christian ministry; and even in those days just before and after my father passed away… in truth, there have been  (and continue to be ) countless moments both large and small – times that were utterly joyful or profoundly sad – when there was this palpable awareness of God’s Spirit moving in my life or in the lives of others in ways that transformed those lives in ways I could never have imagined, much less expected; moments of grace so rich and powerful made even more incredible and precious by the realization that I had absolutely nothing to do with it!

Each year about this time, as the Christian calendar moves from the light-filled season of Epiphany to the arduous journey to the cross that encompasses Lent, we in the church return to the story of Christ’s transfiguration on a “high mountain apart,” (Mark 9:2)  as three of his disciples looked on in awe-struck wonder.  This is a story of the ultimate “mountain-top experience” that points to the magnificence of the divine presence which is seen in Jesus, and it’s filled to overflowing with God’s mystery and power. But amazing as that is, I must confess that every time I return to this story, my thoughts always seem to be on what those three disciples must have been thinking as it happened!

We know, for instance, that Peter immediately wanted to preserve the moment forever by building dwellings on this spot where Jesus was conversing with Moses and Elijah.  But what about James and John; did the sight of Jesus’ face shining “like the sun” with clothes “dazzling white” (Matthew 17:2) open up for them the possibilities of the infinite?  Was every one of their senses suddenly awakened by the presence of the divine in their midst; how did the air smell and how did the light of that transfiguration illumine the trees and rocks that surrounded them atop the mountain?  Did they have an awareness in that glorious moment that there was so much more to their lives now than their fishing nets?  In that fleeting moment, could they have possibly imagined, even in a glimmer, what the future held for each of them?  Almost certainly there so much happening that it was overwhelming; it is no wonder that by the time that voice spoke from the “bright cloud” proclaiming that this was God’s son, “the Beloved,” (Matt. 17:5) the disciples had long sense fallen to the ground in utter fear! For such is what happens when all of the wonder of life as God intends opens up before you!

This story is also a pivotal moment in the gospel narrative; it’s about from this point on that we read of how Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51) with all of what that journey implies.  So even as it’s happening, we know that very soon it will be time for those three disciples to come down from the mountain and continue walking “down in the valley” and ever closer to the cross.  So I have to imagine that the whole experience ended up as bittersweet at best, made all the more so when Jesus instructs them to “tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead,” (Matt. 17:9) understanding that at this point they had barely a clue as to what all of this really meant. And if you read on in the gospels, almost immediately it was back to the work of following Jesus as he healed the sick and brought the good news of God’s kingdom to all the people in every village along their journey, so in truth, there was likely little time for them to consider what had just happened up on that mountain.

And yet… I’m sure they did.  Perhaps in the morning when the bright beauty of the rising sun reminded them of another dazzling light they’d seen; or maybe at the end of a long day when, drifting off to sleep they’d revisit this lingering memory of an event not of their own making… something that was so utterly ethereal and yet as certain as their very breathing…

…something that would define them, and us all, forever.

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on February 23, 2017 in Epiphany, Jesus, Lent, Life, Reflections

 

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