Sermon preached on Transfiguration Sunday March 6, 2011
Texts: Exodus 24:12-18; Matthew 17:1-9
What are some of the annual events in your life?
Every year there are things that roll around, and some bring us joy and some we dread. Last Sunday was the Oscars – the Academy Awards, our family enjoys those. I look forward to the opening of the baseball season and the World Series. I enjoy the Super Bowl and the Master’s golf tournament. Birthdays are often fun occasions, birthdays and anniversaries – though I know some birthdays are more difficult to take than others and if you have forgotten anniversaries often enough they are as much about panic as joy. We tend to dread annual events like tax day, or dental check ups or, perhaps physical exams. Every year I get my colon scoped – and this would be a great time for someone to hold up a TMI sign – too much information! Some annual events are painful because they bring with them the memory of a significant loss.
The church, of course, has its share of annual events – Christmas and Easter being among the most well-known and joyous. Confirmation is nice, and we could list others as well. But did you know that for those of us who in our preaching and worship use the ecumenical common lectionary – a three-year cycle of Scripture readings, one text comes up every year just before the beginning of Lent? It is the story of the transfiguration, the story of Jesus taking Peter, James and John up the mountain, and of their extraordinary experience of him and with him. It is a story about visions and clouds and voices.
And you know, it is an interesting story, but finding something to preach about every year using this story, well, it can be a bit of a challenge. There are a number of directions one can take: one could focus on a theological theme, preaching a Christological sermon about the nature of Jesus as the Christ. Often I have taken the tack of emphasizing the importance of going down the mountain. In our lives we may have some intense religious experiences, perhaps mystical experiences, where God seems closer to us than our own breath or heartbeat. Those experiences matter, but we are not to live as if they are all that matter. We cannot stay up on the mountaintop forever, as Peter seems to want to do. We need to go back down into the everyday life of the world, changed by what we have experienced on the mountain. There are many ways to talk about this, but they all end with the need to go down the mountain.
This year I want to turn that sermon on its head. One of the lessons of the story of the Transfiguration, and of the companion text from Exodus, is our need to go up the mountain, our need to make time and take time out and away to tend to our relationship with God, to nurture our relationship with Jesus. The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain.” Jesus took with him Peter and James, and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. I believe that God invites us up the mountain today. I believe Jesus wants to take us away for some time. We call this time, “worship.” We call this time “prayer” – our focus for the this morning.
Maybe some of you have seen these ads recently for a Windows computing platform. They end, “To the Cloud.” Apparently this technology lets you find files on your home computer while you are stuck in an airport. This technology lets you cut and paste your photos, so you can still have a wonderful family photo even if some family members were not paying attention when the picture was taken. Some of you have seen the ads. “To the cloud.”
Well, God in Jesus says something similar to us – to the cloud. Come away. Take some time. While this may be time away from other aspects of our lives, it is not an evasion of reality. Cloud computer technology promises to make waiting at airports more fun and interesting. Cloud computer technology promises that you can perfect your family in pictures. Computer technology may want to soften reality for us. Going to the cloud with God moves us more deeply into reality – the reality of our lives, the reality of God.
Barry and Ann Ulanov in their book about prayer entitled Primary Speech, write this: In prayer we say who in fact we are – not who we should be, nor who we wish we were, but who we are. Prayer begins with this confession. (1) In prayer we meet our deepest desires, our highest hopes, our darkest fears. In prayer we come clean with ourselves – where we have done well and where we have been wanting. But prayer is not a solo act, it is a relational endeavor. The great Jewish theologian of the last century, Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote, The purpose of prayer is to be brought to God’s attention: to be listened to, to be understood by [God]…. [ The human task] is not to know God, but to be known to God (The Insecurity of Freedom, 256). I am not sure he has it entirely right, but this is important. When we take time away for God in prayer, we have the opportunity to hear the deepest hopes and cries of our hearts and souls. Coming to know ourselves more deeply in prayer, we discover that there is also the God who wants to know us, who already knows us. Our praying is not crying out in the dark emptiness of night with only the wind to answer. Our praying is to God and with God; it is a response to an invitation to the cloud.
In prayer we come to know ourselves more deeply and we come to know that there is One who listens deeply. Ulanovs: God hears all the voices that speak out of us – our vocal prayer, the prayer said in our minds, the unvoiced longing rising from our hearts, the many voices of which we are not conscious but which cry out eloquently (1). We take time for God not only to speak, but also to know we are heard.
And the God who listens also speaks. Theologian Paul Tillich: No place is excluded from communicating to us a word from the Lord. It is always present and tries to be perceived by us. It is like the air, surrounding us… trying to enter every empty space. Tillich goes on to say: So… is there an empty space in your soul?... Without a soul opened for it, no word from the Lord can be received. Listening with an open soul, keeping an empty space in our inner life, sharpening our spiritual hearing: this is the only thing we can do. (The New Being, 123-124)
Have you left some space in your life to hear and respond to the voice of God – “Come up to me on the mountain”? In prayer we come to know ourselves more deeply and come to know that we are known deeply. In prayer we come to discover that we are listened to, and we find that we can listen to God.
Pay attention. Take time. Pray. I hope one of the ways you will make some time for God this Lent is to be part of our congregational book study of Marjorie Suchocki’s book In God’s Presence. Copies are available. I hope you will consider participating in a reading group with others. Sign-up and you will get an e-mail or phone call about group possibilities. Right now we have three groups, a Wednesday group, a Monday group, and a group that will be meeting starting next week during Faith Forum for three weeks. Chapters 1-3 for next Sunday! Sunday sermons during Lent are also going to focus on prayer, and as a compliment to the book. The book focuses on the what and why of prayer followed by forms of prayer. The sermons will discuss the what and why of prayer and focus on various methods for praying – some overlap and some complimentary material.
Regardless, of whether or not you choose to participate in this particular way of taking time for God, find ways to do it. Yes, we need to know that there will be work to do down the mountain. The love we feel when listened to in prayer is a love that needs to be shared. We do come down the mountain. Yet time on the mountain is not idle time, not wasted time. Without it our hearts can become discouraged in the work of love and justice in the world. Without it, our souls can wither, and our work can become soulless. We need time with God, and the invitation from the God who knows us, listens to us, and has a word for us is always there. To the cloud. Amen.