First Congregational Church
February 7, 2016
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, Communion Sunday
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
There’s a Methodist pastor that posts her sermon thoughts online, Rev. Dr. Janet Hunt. Just for fun, she decided to ask her phone, Siri, about the meaning of life. As one can imagine, a phone’s answers about life played across a large field. For instance:
Siri said, “Life: a principle or force that is considered to underlie the quality of animate beings. I guess that includes me.” Then, contradicting ‘herself’, Siri said, “I find it odd that you would ask this of an inanimate object.” Later on, Siri said, “All evidence to date suggests it's chocolate.” At another time, Siri’s answer was, “I don't know, but I think there's an app for that.” In a more practical vein, 'she' said that life’s meaning was to “Try and be nice to people. Avoid eating fat. Read a good book every now and then. Get some walking in. And try to live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.
Standing on the threshold of new seasons is sometimes good to think about the larger pictures of life, and since Lent begins this week, today is as good a time as any for threshold pondering. I know that there is a Monty Python movie called The Meaning of Life, but in reality, it should be given only partial credence to the topic at hand.
Our scripture passage gives us an opportunity to look at that big picture. I, like many pastors, was tempted to opt just for the first part of our passage for this day, since it is Transfiguration Sunday. But David Lose, from working preacher.org, challenged me - and all of us - to keep these two smaller passages together.
The gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell this story of Jesus’ Transfiguration (underscoring its importance to the early church), and all of them end their accounts with the narrative of a "demon-possessed" boy. As you listen to this account, you may want to keep in mind that when the names of Moses and Elijah are used together, and although the individuals are long dead, they are code for the law and the prophets of the Old Testament. The other thing that may enrich the passage is that when Peter suggests putting up tents, it is the suggestion that since it was so nice on that mountain, why not stay a little longer, actually, a lot longer.
Luke 9:28-43 (NIV) The Transfiguration
28 About eight days after Jesus said this (predicting his death), he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray. 29 As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. 30 Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. 31 They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem. 32 Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. 33 As the men were leaving Jesus, Peter said to him, “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what he was saying.)
34 While he was speaking, a cloud appeared and covered them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. 35 A voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” 36 When the voice had spoken, they found that Jesus was alone. The disciples kept this to themselves and did not tell anyone at that time what they had seen.
Jesus Heals a Demon-Possessed Boy
37 The next day, when they came down from the mountain, a large crowd met him. 38 A man in the crowd called out, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, for he is my only child. 39 A spirit seizes him and he suddenly screams; it throws him into convulsions so that he foams at the mouth. It scarcely ever leaves him and is destroying him. 40 I begged your disciples to drive it out, but they could not.”
41 “You unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you and put up with you? Bring your son here.”
42 Even while the boy was coming, the demon threw him to the ground in a convulsion. But Jesus rebuked the impure spirit, healed the boy and gave him back to his father. 43 And they were all amazed at the greatness of God.
When I first read the passage, I was surprised at the amount of energy/indignation I put into Jesus’ response to the son’s father. And then it dawned on me that it was to the disciples that he ranted. Either way, “You unbelieving and perverse nation” seems right harsh. There’s no explanation or apology, so maybe Jesus didn’t say it with as much emotion as I thought. Maybe it was because it was Sunday and he just wanted to go home and kick back with a beer and turn on the tube. I am, however, fairly certain that the point of this - these passages - is far from that one line.
David Lose suggested that these two passages needed to be together because they represent what worship does for us. If I asked any of you what it means to worship or why you go to church, I’m sure many of you would come up with something that had God’s name in it and maybe something about seeing friends. But I’m also guessing that there would be some silent spots and some wondering if we really do understand why we keep coming back each week.
When Peter suggested the raising of tents, in a sense he was suggesting that this little mountain hike was turning into a retreat. For those who haven’t ever been on a retreat, there are usually some teaching times, worship times, relaxation and socialization times.
If you think about it, all those elements were present on that mountain top that day, to one degree or another. God teaching the guys - and us - to listen, the guys getting sleepy - as happens at any worship service worth its salt, the worship and interaction of history, prophecy and the Word of God - capital W.
People often think about retreats as retreating from the world. In actuality, they are times away in order to come back to the world with renewed love, mercy and grace - for the continuing of the work set before us. In the larger passage for this morning, Jesus, James and John retreated from the world so that when they came back down to reality the next day, they were ready to deal with the man and his beloved son.
And therein is the added link between these two passages - the love of sons - the love of beloveds. From the height of the mountain, God proclaimed the love of God’s beloved in Christ. From the depth of the valley, the anonymous man - who could have been any one of us - begged for the restoration of his beloved.
It would be poignant to see where each of us are on that path between the mountain top and the valley. How long has it been since you were able to retreat to the mountain? How long has it been since you were able to escape the valley - if even for a short time? And I wonder how many of us interpret the Bible as if its stories apply only to our own individual selves. My mountaintop experience. My valley. My relationship with God.
That is part of what this book is meant to do - to develop and cultivate that relationship between us and God. But if we think it is only about us, then we are misguided, because the truth is that my mountain lies right next to your valley. The truth is that my pain does not cancel out your joy. The truth is that it is entirely possible for you to sit in church on Sunday morning and bask in the sweet presence of God's Spirit — while one pew over I cry my eyes out because the ache of God’s absence feels unbearable. And those scenarios are so very sacred and right.
Today we are vividly reminded of our connection and relationship to God and each other in the breaking of the bread and sharing of the cup. In the holding of the tray and the passing of the bread, we are reminded that we are not singular, but a community. We are reminded that just as our lives touch one another, so does God touch all and each of us.
In this sacred time, without words, we speak glory to agony, and agony to glory. In the larger picture, we hold the mountain and the valley in faithful tension with each other — denying neither, embracing both and the beloveds we see all along the path. So let us prepare our hearts and minds for this moment of sacred communion.
Let us pray. Gracious God, we thank you that Jesus came down from that mountain, not just to heal, but to be one among us. Help us to embrace the Beloveds among us, that we might learn from them and enlarge our own hearts and souls. Give us courage and patience to be in those places that challenge us. Grant us wisdom and discernment to when feelings seem to take over understanding. For the gift of your Beloveds, for your own Beloved and for considering each of us your Beloved, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.