Listen to Jesus
Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday
Mar. 2, 2014
The Rev. Dr. George H. Martin
Good Morning! And welcome to St. Matthew’s on one of those Sundays when we think about the future of the Church. Our focus begins with the young men and young women and what we call the Celebration of Manhood and Womanhood. This is, for them, what we’d call a rite of Passage.
We recognized today that each of us is called to leave childhood behind as we enter into the world where we share God’s power of creation. Entering a world where life can be created, and assuming responsibilities for shaping this world to reflect God’s purpose for life calls for such a rite and such promises.
The prayers we say are for these young adults, for their parents, and for all of us in the church have to with our hopes and dreams for them as well as for God’s world. We will begin by renewing our baptismal promises: promising to stay with the story of Jesus and to live that story by the way we treat one another and by the way we honor the dignity of every human being. And it’s all framed in the context of being on a journey of faith together.
Today we are also thinking of the future of the church celebrating those who belong to our Legacy Society, and hopefully inviting and challenging others to do the same. When I was preparing my sermon I was going to say that membership in the Legacy Society is simple, but then I pulled back from that observation. The paperwork is straightforward; the commitment to make a gift to the church in the context of our own death is another matter. For us as adults with experience in life there is another rite of Passage as we face our mortality, and in the context of our church’s Legacy Society declare that we will leave something of significance that benefits others, particularly our church and it’s ministry, after we are gone.
We live in a society that values youth, individuality, freedom and spontaneity. Do your own thing. Be your own person. Have it your way. Get what you deserve.
And when those are the core values we must ask what we have left behind? What’s the legacy that given to others when all you think about it your own pleasure and that you always lived just for the moment? What about other values?
Honor your Father and Mother. Respect your elders. That I don’t know it all, and that there is wisdom to be learned. There is something worthwhile in assuming and taking on responsibility for others. With every blessing comes an obligation. It matter’s who your friends are. The stories that have shaped us, need to be the stories that we are telling by the way we live our lives. Those are the values of this community, and these rites of passage.
These care values ma seem to be lost. But not on this Sunday. It’s not lost in context of recognizing those who yesterday were children, but now, but now are young adults. And they are entering the privileged phase of adulthood. In the world of Christianity it’s where we talk about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.
It leads us to constantly question what it means to follow Jesus. In my own journey of faith I find that I sometimes need to go on retreat to focus on that question—to go to someplace that’s quiet, or where there is ordered worship that allows sufficient time and space for prayer, for reading, and for reflection. Only once did I really flunk a retreat.
Many years ago, I decided that I wanted to spend a week at a monastery, and I chose St. Gregory’s Benedictine Abbey in Three Rivers, Michigan. It’s about 30 miles from Kalamazoo, nestled in the rolling hills of small farms, wooded forests, and rivers and creeks that empty into Lake Michigan.
Upon my arrival I was given a small guest room and then had a visit with my spiritual director for the week, Brother David. I was a welcome guest for their meals, and their seven times of prayer throughout each day. I entered into the time of Great Silence which began each evening with Compline and lasted until mid-morning with the conclusion of the Eucharist. I was up with them at 5am for the first of the seven offices. And I met daily with Brother David. At the end of my retreat, my last meeting with Brother David, I asked him, what I should do to prepare for my next retreat at St. Gregory’s? Brother David, looked at me kindly, but glanced out the window, cleared his throat, and said, “We don’t think you should come back here for your next retreat.”
I gulped. And asked, “Can you tell me why?”
And he gently said, almost in a whisper, “You talk to much.”
Indeed I had. For I was the curious one, asking questions of the monk about their life. Their call to living in community. But then I saw a smile on Brother David’s face, as he said,
“We have a suggestion for your next retreat!”
And so it was that I went to convent in South Bend Indiana on my next retreat and spent part of a week in a small hermitage, talking to no one but myself and God. That’s a story for another time.
I’m not alone in having the problem of sometimes “Talking to much.” That was the problem with Peter, that disciple of Jesus who spoke about setting up three tents or booths as a monument to Jesus, Moses, and Elijah for what had just happened on that mountain, where Jesus was bathed in a divine light—the light that caused the face of Jesus, scripture says, to shine like the sun, and for his clothes to be the as white as light.
There’s an exhibit, by the way, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art featuring the work of James Turrell, an artist who plays with light. His art is about light that appears sometimes as shapes bursting in one instance out of a corner of a blank wall. A review called Turells’s art “seemingly unmodulated fields of colored light.” There is a room where the light is a kind of epiphany. I felt like it was a bath and a shower of light. Where was this light coming from, I wondered that was swishing around me slowly changing color and intensity? I felt I could grab the light, but it was the light that was enfolding me. We had eight minutes or so to be in that space and then had to leave it. I was like Peter, I wanted to stay much longer.
Hi desire to stay in the moment led Peter to be the first to speak on that mount of Transfiguration. It wasn’t the first or last time that Peter would be talking to much, or saying the wrong thing. It helps to have a little context.
Just before this Gospel story we are told that Jesus took his disciples to a town called Ceasaria Philippi, which was the northernmost city in Israel at that time. It was literally on the boundary between Israel and the rest of the world.
There Jesus asked “Who do people say the Son of Man is? And the asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter was the first one to answer Jesus. Of course he was. And he declared, “You are the Christ, the Son of God who is alive.” And then Jesus charged them not to tell anyone else about this. Keeping quiet was obviously, a challenge to a Peter.
Then Jesus talked about what it meant to be a disciple. That he would go to Jerusalem and there be killed and raised again on the third day. And Peter? Peter, Matthew says, took Jesus aside and rebuked him saying, “God forbid it Lord, it must not happen to you.” And then Jesus reminded Peter, and I think all of us, what it means to be a disciple. He said, “Get behind me.” Now he called “Peter the name of Satan” at that point, for that’s exactly what Jesus said when he’d been tempted in the wilderness.
The meaning for Peter? And for the rest of us? The line forms behind Jesus. We follow the cross, as we do, each Sunday, into and out of Church.
Thus Peter, with his edifice complex, wanting to stay on that mountain, said, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, let us make three dwellings for you here, one for Moses, one for Elijah, and one for you.”
Pause for just a moment. The Orthodox icons of this event frame it with three figures at the top, but clearly Jesus is in the center and he is higher than Moses or Elijah. Jesus has his right hand held in blessing, and holds a scroll in his left hand. The halo around his head says, “The One Who Is.” Namely this is God’s name. Moses and Elijah have hands raised in intercession to Jesus. Moses, represents the law, the Mitzvah, the covenant. the Torah, and the whole exodus/promised land story is there as well. Elijah is in that line of prophets who called Israel to return to faithfulness and for all that Moses stood for. Lastly, we see sprawled on the steep incline with their garments in disarraythe three disciples, Peter, James and John. (There are some reproductions of this icon in the patio and at the back of the church this morning. )
Back to Peter now, and his talking about building a monument as it were on that mountain, as a way to preserve something of what had happened. And then a voice. A startling voice. That is the moment captured in the Orthodox icon—when the disciples were terrified on the mountain. A voice from heaven that interrupted Peter and said,
“Listen to him.” The great Shema of Israel is echoed. Listen is the translation of “Shema”. It’s voice not just for Peter, but for community, as it always was in ancient Israel.
But for those of tempted to speak before we think, those of us like Peter, we really need to hear the command to “Listen.” What is essentially at work, isn’t just to hear some words, but to know what they mean, and then embody them in our lives.
Before we build something, we should listen. Before making a big decision we should listen. Before acting on some emotion, or reacting to something that has hurt or offended us, we should listen.
Now it’s hard to listen, especially if listening involves something called obedience, or duty, or responsibility as it often does. My Mom would say to me when I was a teenager, can you be home by 10, and I’d say yes. And there were times I didn’t hear her, or so I said, and returned home much later.
I’ve learned the hard way, that it’s hard to multitask and to really listen to someone. If you see me looking at my iPhone in a group meeting, don’t presume that I’m listening very well. The better thing is say, “Hey George, look at me for a second.” Then once you know if I’m looking at you chances are I might hear what you have to say.
Oh, that’s what happened on that mountain. The voice of God came, and said Listen, look at Jesus. “This is my priceless Son. Listen to Him!”
And then they came down the mountain. Down into the real world. A world where people don’t always tell the truth. Where there is competition and it isn’t always fair.
But there is this community that harks back to the stories of Moses, the message of the prophets, and it is our practice to hold on to a way of life, and the story of God affirming each time we gather that this commitment ultimately matters. In Judaism this tradition of remembering is held forth in a rite called the Bar Mitzvah. when a young man becomes “a son of the commandment” or it is the Bat Mitzvah when young girl becomes “a daughter of the commandment”. It happens at age 13 in Judaism.
We honor that tradition today, but add it to the Christian story. That journey down the mountain for those disciples, with Jesus headed to Jerusalem. That story that they didn’t tell, until they knew that it wasn’t a story that ended on Good Friday, but a story that they were take to all the world.
I want to conclude with a few thoughts about solitude, silence, and listening as the way we live this story.
Most of us find few times when we are really alone in this world or if we’re alone when we fell good about it. Many of us are surrounded with immediacy in terms of all the conversations that are possible. We can’t leave our text messaging behind for long, we need to instagram, facebook. or twitter, all nouns and software, that have become verbs in our lives. They are there when we wake up, and there buzzing sometimes as we fall asleep, or even waking us in the middle of the night.
And yet the great questions of identity are always there waiting in the wings. Who am I? What am I be? What am I called to do? And eventually we wonder, What will be my legacy?
What will last of who am I, what I’ve done, what I’ve become, and and What I have? What will last?
That word “last.” It means sometimes what comes at the very end. But it also means “what will endure.” What goes on and on.
So a part you, this child part, isn’t lost forever. It will last. It becomes an adult. And those of us of some age, can know that part of who are is that child was, but we are also the adults who’ve had to grow up and take our place in God’s world. We won’t live forever. There is a last breath, but we know something of who we are can can also last. Last as memory. Last as story. And last as legacy.
This Lent, that begins this Ash Wednesday can involve those quiet times. When we can listen. We can even find times of silence that we wish would last. Alas, the busy world will call us again, but those times of silence and listening will make a difference. May the gift of Lent, include our listening for the word of God.