Listen to Him!Scriptures: Exodus 34:29-35 & Luke 9:28-36
Given on 02/06/2016 at UPC of Amsterdam, NY
There are moments that occur in this space once every few weeks that transport me back to my hometown church and my childhood. Moments in which a hymn will begin and for a few minutes I am no longer bound by the limitations of space and time and I am, at least in my mind, and I imagine, my soul, back in the sanctuary of my youth. Back to the second pew back from the front, on the right side, where an adult choir that spilled out of the two lofts in which they sat led the congregation in singing some of the great old hymns of the church. Where we would sing Holy, Holy, Holy and Carolyn Snow, already an older woman, would pierce the firmament between heaven and earth with a descant that sat on top of the last verse of the song. Where we would sing Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee and the great pipe organ would fill the whole of the space with Beethoven’s Ode to Joy as we, with one voice, offered our sincerest praise to God for the life and light and love that swirl all around us. That seemed to, in that moment, in that place completely envelop all of us and bring us all to the throne of glory, the gates of heaven, the table of the great feast of God. My mother, if she were here, would tell you, among other things about me, that she used to hold up large speakers to her belly while I was in utero and place concertos by Bach and lilting melodies by Antonio Vivaldi, that she used to rattle my little home with the powerful symphonies of Carl Orth and Antonin Dvorak. She would tell you that that is where my profound love of music came from. And I’ve tried to incorporate a love of music in each part of my lived experience. If one were to come by my office during the work week, you would likely be greeted by the works of either Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, or the great John Coltrane a musician I begged my wife to let me name a child after. I didn’t succeed. In my doctoral program I wrote whole papers about the role of music in the great social movements for equality and justice, especially in the 20th century in the United States. And in them I talked about the manner in which Miles Davis, in the middle of all the social upheaval of the late 1960s and early 1970s released a series of albums in which he took every rule of music and dropped them into a blender and created works of art that became the soundtrack of an era. I wrote about the role of prophetic musicians like Bob Dylan and Marvin Gaye who each, in their own way, called on the nation to embrace racial harmony and the work of peace and of musical artists today who continue to push the boundaries of art and demand that we never stop the human endeavor to better embrace the power of love to overcome everything that is broken about the world. I mention all this because, often, we don’t take the time we need to to be transported away from the everyday and to somewhere in which we are not limited by our place in time. Often we do not seek out those moments of sheer beauty in which we are filled with life and love and light. Often we do not, look for ways to experience occasions on mountaintop in which we find ourselves surrounded by the glory of God. We don’t listen for those magical moments in which notes blend together and we find ourselves experiencing as the old hymn says the mystic sweet communion of rest in God. Those times in which the glory of God breaks down all that dwells in the spaces between ourselves and God’s peace, God’s love. And we all need those times. We need those times in which, even if only for a brief moment, all else falls away and we find ourselves touching the face of God and breathing the very breath of God’s Holy Spirit. And for many, it is art, it is music and release us from the bounds of a broken humanity and allow us to see, with our own eyes, even if only for a second, the glory of God shining all around us.
We are told that following a particularly trying exchange between Jesus and some of his followers, he takes Peter, James, and John up to the top of a mountain to pray. And perhaps it was that for those that followed Jesus up the mountain, the trip had been too exhausting. Perhaps it was that they were still thinking about the exchange they had had with Jesus in which he talked about losing their lives in hopes of gaining them. Maybe it was what had to feel like the specter of death that seemed to building around them as they moved from city-to-city, but whatever it was, when they all go to pray together the three, Peter, James, and John fall sound asleep. And really, who among us hasn’t done that before? Who among us hasn’t started thinking, started praying about their day and their lives and the next thing you know it is morning. But while they are asleep, we are told that Jesus begins to change, to become transfigured, and all of a sudden he is standing with Moses and Elijah, two of the spiritual fathers of the Jewish tradition. And with the others still asleep they begin to talk about the prophecy that he is about to bring to fruition in Jerusalem. And maybe it is that this is Jesus’s opportunity to be carried away from all that is going on in the world, if only for a few minutes. Maybe this is as much about Jesus experiencing the glory of God enveloping himself high atop a mountain where there is no one else who is cognizant of what is going on, maybe this is his last bit of refuge, the last shelter from the storm before his life begins to careen out of control. It is worth noting that when he and the disciples come back down the mountain to rejoin the others, that what’s called by Biblical scholars the “turn to Jerusalem” happens. That is, Jesus comes to make peace with his final destiny and begins to make preparations for it. This story of the Transfiguration happens on the week before Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent every year. And it happens here because, as we journey with Jesus to his final destination, we too, must prepare ourselves for what is to come, We, too, must rest and regain the strength to walk with Jesus in these last few steps. We, too, must see and experience the Glory of God shining on the one that we seek to follow. And so it is that we see the disciples awaken and immediately they are aware that the glory of God is shining on the one that they are seeking to follow. And maybe it is that in rising from their slumber they are not sure how to proceed, maybe it is that the awe that they experience just seeing a divine light shining has taken their ability to think clearly, maybe it is that they have been rendered silent because the only thing they can manage to get out is Peter, and God love Peter, but it is Peter, seeing that they have been joined by the spirits of two of the spiritual parents of Judaism, offers to pitch three tents for them so that they may rest awhile, so that they might, in the language of my people, take off their sandals and set a spell. And when I’ve read this passage before, I’ve always thought this rather awkward turn in the conversation was simply the result of Peter being Peter. Whatever else you can say about the one on whom Jesus built the church, it must be said that more often than not, it is Peter who says the slightly humorous, slightly awkward thing that often breaks the silence in the situation. And it certainly is an awkward thing to say, but this time around, I heard something that I hadn’t heard before. Something that I really have appreciated in this time in which often it can feel as if the world is descending into chaos. You put down tents in a place in which you want to spend some time dwelling. You put down tents at a place that feels like you might be able to recharge your battery for a long trip. You put down tents when you believe that you can’t possibly go another step without collapsing. When the disciples wake up from sleep that had overtaken them because they were just that tired, they immediately find themselves staring not just at their teacher, not just at the one they followed, but at a person glowing with its the glory of God, with two pillars of the Judaic tradition standing with them and sure this felt like some kind of a confirmation that what they were doing was right, surely this felt like a place that they could stay forever, surely this gave them a greater faith in the power of God over all creation. And so it is that Peter just affirms what we all know to be true. That when we have seen the face of God, when we breathe the breath of the Holy Spirit, when we believe and we know and are assured that we are forever held in the powerful hand of God, we want to stay there forever. So of course you take whatever action is necessary for the sustenance of the moment. Of course you try and get Moses and Elijah to stick around. Of course you want Jesus to stay glowing with the glory of God. Of course life isn’t perpetually aglow, at least not in a way that we can always see and so it is that a cloud comes and surrounds Jesus and his followers are reminded that they cannot stay there. They are reminded that there is work to be done. But they are also reminded, in language that mirrors Jesus’s baptism that we spoke about a few weeks ago, “This is my own, my chosen one. Listen to him!” And maybe it is that Jesus said not to tell anyone what hap happened. Or maybe they just couldn’t process what they had seen or heard for a long time, maybe it is that to try and put words to such an experience of the Divine would have cheapened it for them, would never have captured the beauty and sublimity of the moment. In any case, they returned to the group and told no one what had happened.
Sisters, brothers, we are about to embark on a trip together. A journey in which even those with the deepest faith and trust in God will find themselves stretched to their outer limits to make sense of what is about to take place. And yet we don’t do it alone. We don’t face these challenges as a collection of individuals who happen to arrive at the same place each week. We come together as a family to stand with one another and carry those who grow weary and dry the tears of the ones who cannot bear to see Jesus’s last few steps. But we also have our own mountaintop experiences as a group. Because we gather around table. We gather around this table where the glory of God envelops the simple goodness of bread and cup and make it as the body and blood of the savior, so that we might have the strength of Christ, that we may be the hands of Christ and the feet of Christ, so that we can take a few lingering moments and taste and see that God is good. That we can hear the voice of God surrounding us and saying, this is my beloved, my chosen one, listen to him. But we have to remember, just like Peter and his desire to linger in this place for as long as we possibly can, as long as we might want to dwell in God’s love and God’s light, and know the power of the glory of God, we can never forget that just outside those doors is a world that is bathed in darkness, a world that is desperate to know that someone, anyone still cares and we are called to not remain here but to go into the darkness, being conduits for that love, for that light in a world that needs it desperately. So let us be fed, let us be sustained for the journey, but let us never fear the journey. And let us walk it together. Arm-in-arm headed for glory land. Alleluia. Amen.