Preached Sunday, February 7, 2016
at First Church in Sterling, MA
Listen to the audio version here.
Scripture: Luke 9: 28-42
Today is transfiguration Sunday. In the telling of the transfiguration story we heard today from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus goes up a mountain to pray. While he is up there, a white light surrounds him, the appearance of his face changes, and his clothes become dazzling white, and we see Moses next to him, the representative of the Law, and we see Elijah next to him, the representative of the prophets. From a cloud comes a voice:
“This is my son, the chosen. Listen to him.”
This is such a crazy experience for Jesus’ friends. So wild that they don’t even talk about it. They kept silent. They told no one. They were probably pretty freaked out, and didn’t know what to do, and I’m sure they thought people wouldn’t believe them. I imagine they wanted to stay on top of that mountain with Jesus, sitting at his feet, listening for God’s voice. Listening to Jesus, the newly transfigured one, chosen by God. It’s an unparalleled mystical experience for them. A “mountaintop moment” most of us never have. I’d want to stay up there, wouldn’t you?
But what does Jesus do after this experience, the next day? He doesn’t stay up on the mountain communing with God, Moses and Elijah in the clouds. He doesn’t stick just with his friends who were clearly told by God to “listen to him,” though it’s always easier to hang around people who you know will listen to you. He comes down the mountain to be among the people—the people who are lost, who are sick, who are imprisoned, who are oppressed, who are in need. And right after he comes down the mountain, he heals a man who is possessed by a demon.
“And all were astounded by the greatness of God.”
Beloved: if you and I have seen the light of God, it’s time to come down off of our mountains.
That’s where the greatness of God shows up—not just in the clouds in baths of white light, or in the woods during a beautiful snowscape, or on mountaintops--but among the people. Our tradition teaches us that mystical experiences communing with God alone in nature mean absolutely nothing if they aren’t followed by loving our neighbors: toiling in the fields of conflict and heartache…healing, lifting, listening, doing, forgiving. This loving your neighbor business is far harder work than the peaceful tranquility of the ocean at sunset, or shivasana during a yoga class and meeting God there. Trying to find God in humanity is much harder work. We will be disappointed by people and institutions again and again. And they will be disappointed in us. We will fail each other. We may even lose faith. But it’s worth it, because it’s the only real thing there is. And it is the Way of Jesus.
And if you’re lucky, your heart will break in the process of loving others wastefully, and extravagantly the way God does, because last I checked, the statistics are the same: 100% of the people you love will die. Love anyway.
Some of you know that in the last week I have done three funerals. We are in the midst of a season of sadness here at First Church. In the last 8 days, we have honored the lives of Jean Adams, Rick Dell, Clyde Magaw. And in the weeks before that, Helen Wessels, and though we didn’t have these funerals here at the church, our congregation also mourned Muriel Senter and Helen Rugg. I have spent a lot of time up here in this mountainous pulpit, trying to speak some words of comfort, on behalf of God; on behalf of the risen Christ. Which is an impossible task for a human being, when you think about it. And, as you know, I am so very human.
So, at one of these funerals, I was about to go into the sanctuary to begin the service. One of the mourners, a gentleman in my parent’s generation, was looking for the door. He had been to the bathroom, and couldn’t find his way back to his seat. “This congregation is a maze” he said with a smile. “I don’t know where I’m going.”
I said, “Welcome. This is the door to the sanctuary.”
He looked at me for more than a second. I was wearing my full vestments, robe and stole, bathed in so much “white light,” and smiling a beatific smile. I imagined my aura to be as Christ-like and ethereal as possible. I adjusted my halo.
And he said, “are you the PASTOR of this church?”
And I said, “Yes, I’m Robin. Nice to meet you.”
And he said, “WOW! You’re a CUTE CHICK! I mean, you’re cute and you’re a chick. You’re the pastor? Wow.”
I said, “We pastors try our hardest to be cute.”
Yes, I know, that wasn’t the most respectful thing to say to a Pastor of a church right before a funeral, and maybe not the best comeback on my part. Though this kind of interaction doesn’t always make me laugh, this time it did. Heartily. Maybe because it was yet another of a million reminders throughout my day that I have a body. That though I may have a role that is set apart, and though I wear a robe and stole when I stand before you that represent my status as ordained and trained, and I stand in this pulpit from on high, I am really just a regular old fallible human, and I am a completely embodied one at that. And still cute! Fabulous at almost forty!
I wonder if anyone ever said to Jesus, “Wow, Jesus! You’re a cute dude! I like your sandals!”
Maybe they did. Maybe it infuriated or humbled him; but either way, it probably reminded him that he had a body. Maybe he needed that reminder constantly, to ground him in the work of the people.
Your job and mine is to represent Christ who lived in a human body. And God knows I can’t do my ministry from up on a mountain, and neither can you. Our job together is to continually come down off of our mountains of “better than,” or “holier than thou,” or “smarter than,” or “right,” --to come down off those mountains we use to put ourselves above others, and heal some demons with our hands and feet and ears and eyes.
We have to come down the mountain.
The most important thing we need to learn as human beings, by Jesus’ example, is humility. We are beloved by God, but we are not God. We are human, we are embodied, and our bodies will one day be returned to the earth from which they came. You and I are not the center of the universe, and we are not in control, and we definitely don’t belong up on a mountain looking down on the world. This realization is the spiritual task of a lifetime.
You and I are not God; we are mortal.
We have to come down the mountain.
And so I want to say something about the Bible, because the Bible contributes to our belief that we can speak for God—or our belief that we can know anything about God at all. There are Christians who stay up on top of their mountains so that they can look down on other people. To “tsk, tsk,” to shame, to judge worthiness—of heaven, of God’s love, of salvation. Often, those mountains we stand on are stacked with Bibles and cherry picked passages about why and how some are saved and some aren’t…who’s in and who’s out, who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s going to hell, and who’s going to heaven. There are Christians who stand upon this book to look down at the rest of us.
This is a beautiful and a dangerous text. This is a text that is used as a tool for evil. You know it, I know it. Election seasons and fundamentalist preachers and the TV news and our Facebook friends remind us of it every day. Those who seek to oppress and harm other people—those who seek to oppress and harm Muslims, Jews, foreigners, people of color, the gay community, the poor, atheists, those who justify unjust wars and genocide and slavery….they use this book to do it. They have throughout this book’s entire history. This book is holy and sacred and beautiful and is foundational to our faith tradition, and this book as been weaponized.
And so our job as people gathered in the spirit of Jesus is to take this book seriously and therefore not literally. There is no other way to reverently and respectfully read this book. And ultimately, we don’t follow this book. We follow Christ.
We need to come down from our mountains.
Gordon Atkinson, in his book "Turtles All the Way Down" writes about a certain prototype of this kind of Bible-worshipping Christian: “there’s something about the way you use the Bible, something about the way you use it as a tool, as a weapon, as a fulcrum, as a means, as an end, as a trump card………
That old man that you brushed aside? The one you called a liberal and a wishy-washy Christian? He spent the last fifty years with his hands and his heart in the pages of that sacred book. He has wept over it and searched for truth in its stories. His unanswered questions have increased every year until finally he knows nothing at all but the love of God and neighbor. He knows something that you do not know.
Those people around the table? The ones you spoke so harshly to that night when you came upon them sharing a meal and pleasant conversation at church? You told them it was a shame when Christians gathered only to eat and talk. You dropped your big black Bible on the table with a thud for emphasis. They are some of God’s oldest and wisest servants. They have prayed down the walls of prejudice and broken the strongholds of anger and pain with the prayers of their hands and feet. Their meal was a prayer, though you couldn’t hear it.”
Our job is not to worship a book, but to follow Christ, who came down off of his mountain in a human body, who broke all the laws in this book to be among the people at the bottom: to touch, to heal, to feed, to forgive, to love. And our job by Christ’s example is to pray down the walls of prejudice and break the strongholds of anger and pain with the prayers of our hands and feet, to know nothing at all but the love of God and neighbor.
It is our job to love without stopping to inquire who is worthy. We have to come down the mountain.
When we come down the mountain, we see this: EVERYONE transfigured. We see this: everyone we encounter bathed with that warm white light, which is God. When we come down, we see all people as more than just bodies. As more than just “cute chicks”, black, or brown or white, trans or gay, male or female, atheist, Muslim or Jew--but as people called by their God-given name, which is Beloved. When we come down the mountain we see all people as opportunities to see and touch Christ. These are my sons and daughters, the Chosen. Listen to them.
They will know we are Christians by our _________________.
Not by our morals, not by our biblical knowledge, not by our purity, nor by our Baptisms, not by our support of one political candidate or position over another, not even by our holy book.
Say it with me: They will know we are Christians by our Love.
Reverend Robin Bartlett is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, with dual standing in the United Church of Christ. She is the Senior Pastor at The First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts.