Sunday, March 27, 2011

Judge Not, Lest Ye . . . 7th Sermon on the Sermon on the Mount

Matthew 7:1-14

Although many of us enjoy being judge and jury, few of us want to face judgement. We like the words “judge not, lest ye be judged,” and yet it’s almost part of human nature to judge others. Therefore, we find ourselves saying: “Can you believe the way she dresses? It’s embarrassing.” Or, “Did you hear what he said? Well, I just think that’s totally inappropriate!” Or, “Did you hear that Sam went to the casino last week, and he calls himself a Christian?” In case you believe yourself incapable of such words, Jesus has an unflattering word to describe you (and me).

As we continue our journey through the Sermon on the Mount, we come to an invitation to examine closely our lives. Instead of judging others, we hear Jesus calling on us to judge ourselves. Of course, the task of facing our own inner demons isn’t an easy task, which is why very few of us answer this call. But, if we’re going to seek first the kingdom of God, then this is the road we must take.

1. Logs and Splinters

Jesus is a master of language, and his choices in metaphors cut through the noise that surrounds our lives. In this passage from Matthew’s gospel, we hear words about splinters and logs. Although we enjoy sitting in judgment of others – admit it, you like it – we’re really not in the position to render judgment on the lives of our neighbors. That’s because we have logs in our eyes that keep us from seeing the splinter that lies in the eye of our neighbor. You simply can’t pull something out of the eye of another person, when there’s an impediment so large sitting your eye that you can’t even see the face of the other. So, take care of that impediment, before trying to do surgery on someone else.

As we contemplate these metaphors, we might benefit from hearing another story, this one being from the Gospel of John. If you look at most bibles, the story of the woman caught in adultery will be in the margins or in parentheses. That’s because there are questions about whether or not it is original to this gospel, but whether or not it originally was in John’s gospel, it speaks to an important truth.

According to this story, a group of religious leaders brings this women who had been caught in adultery and challenged Jesus to render judgment. That meant casting the first stone. Jesus puts the onus back on them, and says to the accusers – “let the one who is without sin, cast the first stone.” When no one comes forward, Jesus says to the woman, no one comes to condemn you, neither do I, but go and sin no more. If we take the biblical witness to heart, Jesus is in a position to cast that stone, but he chose not to do so. Since he chooses not to render judgement, then perhaps we shouldn’t either.

2. Proper Gifts

Of course Scripture speaks of judgment, and next Sunday’s sermon carries the title “Judgement Day.” Although there is a place for judgment, it is God and not us, to whom this task is entrusted. When we try to take on the role of judge, we’re assuming the prerogative of God. Now, the reason why we should leave the role of judge to God isn’t because God is important and we’re not, but instead it’s because of the character of God.

This is why the words that follow the word about judgment are so important. Jesus tells us that if we ask, we’ll receive; if we seek, we’ll find; and if we knock the door will be opened. This is because God is faithful to God’s promises. When it comes to the promises of God, there will be no bait and switch.

Of course, we need to understand that the promises of God are related to the kingdom of God. The promise is made to those who seek first the kingdom and place their treasure in heaven. Although, there are those who would say otherwise, Jesus isn’t promising us a Lexus or a mansion, or even a check for a million dollars, not even if you promise to donate 10% to the church. But because God, who is the giver of every good and perfect gift and who will not do evil, then we can trust God. Yes, as Jesus says, God is like a loving parent, who when a child asks for bread doesn’t give a stone instead, or when a child asks for a fish, gives a snake instead. Indeed, if you, who are evil, don’t treat your children that way, then surely God, who is righteous and loving won’t either. The reason why we should leave the task of judgment to God, is that God isn’t just good, but because God’s essence is love in all of love’s dimensions.

God is love, which doesn’t mean that God is a sentimental chap, but rather, to borrow from Tom Oord’s definition of love, God acts “intentionally in sympathetic/empathetic response to others, to promote overall well-being” (Oord, The Nature of Love, p. 17). This definition of love defines the nature of God, and it also provides the context in which God acts in judgment of the world.

3. Do unto others . . .

Instead of rendering judgments that neither you nor I are prepared to offer, “treat people in the same way that you want people to treat you; this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Mt. 7:12 CEB). These words form what we call the Golden Rule, and this rule is simply a paraphrase of the second great commandment – “love our neighbors as you love yourself.” As you consider this golden rule, remember that Jesus defined neighbor to include one’s enemies, and agape love, as Tom Oord suggests, means intentionally promoting the overall well-being of those who mean to do us evil. This is, of course, no easy task, which is why few of us heed the call to love the world as God loves the world.

But, if you love in this way, then you fulfill the Law and the Prophets. You may have thought that Jesus renders the Law and the prophets null and void, but that isn’t true. Jesus never abandons either the Law or the Prophets, because without them we won’t know how to act toward others. As Stanley Hauerwas, who is known to be a rather radical sort of character, puts it: “love is the fulfillment of the Law.” And, having said that, he goes on to say that love is “a radical politics that challenges the world’s misappropriation of God’s good gift.” Indeed, if Christ embodies God’s love, then we can’t “know love apart from loving one’s enemies.” (Mt. 22:37-40). [Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew, Brazos Press, 2006, p. 89].

If we’re going to take the journey that Jesus outlines in the Sermon on the Mount, then we’ll have to give up trying to be judge and jury. Instead, of trying to be judges of others, we can begin loving our friends and our enemies as God loves them. If we’re going to join God in the work of transforming this world in which we live, then we’ll have to take the narrow pathway, which is the road less traveled.

So how do we know which path to take? Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes in his book on discipleship that we’ll know the way if we keep our eyes focused on Jesus, who walks in front of us, leading the way. Bonhoeffer writes:

He is the narrow road and the narrow gate. The only thing that matters is finding him. If we know that, then we will walk the narrow way to life through the narrow gate of the cross of Jesus Christ, then the narrowness of the way will reassure us. [Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, (Fortress, 2001), p. 4:176].

This narrow path doesn’t take the form of legalism, with a lot of senseless rules and regulations that tell us not to do this or do that or we’ll be excluded. It’s not a matter of dress codes and good manners, or even having all the right beliefs. What it does involve is living life in a way that honors God and seeks to promote the well-being of others. That’s not an easy path to take, but this is the path way that leads from what Richard Rohr calls the first half of life to the second half of life.

If we’re going to take this path then we’ll have to “let go of our own smaller kingdoms,” which we’re not always eager to do, and instead choose union with God. That means letting God lead the way. If we choose this path, and let God both guide us and judge us, then we’ll begin to think in a way that leaves plenty of room for others to join us in communion with God. As Fr. Rohr writes: “Everyone is in heaven when he or she has plenty of room for communion and no need for exclusion. The more room you have to include, the bigger your heaven will be” (Richard Rohr, Falling Upward, p. 101).

It is my prayer that each of us will let go of the need to judge others, but instead as we recognize our own need of forgiveness and restoration, that we will commit ourselves to the way of the kingdom, and in doing so, we will promote the well-being of all those who share this world with us. In this we will know the fullness of God’s presence, and that is what it means to be in heaven!
Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
3rd Sunday in Lent
March 27, 2011

Sunday, March 20, 2011

What Should I Desire Most? -- Sermon 6 on the Sermon on the Mount

Matthew 6:19-34

In The Christmas Carol, the heart of a young Ebenezer Scrooge grows dark and cold as he enters the world of business. His pursuit of earthly treasure has even shut his heart to the young woman to whom he’s engaged. The story of Ebenezer Scrooge, which I watch every Christmas in as many formats as possible, is a telling portrait of the problem that Jesus addresses in our text this morning.

This brief section of the Sermon on the Mount is framed by two statements. In the opening paragraph Jesus says: “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (vs. 21). That is, wherever you put your treasure, that will be your God, as the story of Mr. Scrooge clearly illustrates. Then we close with these familiar words: “Seek first the kingdom of God.” In both of these statements and the verses that surround them, we hear this important question: In whom will I place my trust?

1. Making a Kingdom Bank Deposit

These words follow Jesus’ gift of a prayer, one that we pray each week, and perhaps even daily. Last year we spent the Lenten season exploring this prayer, which calls for us to pledge our ultimate allegiance to God. And, if we are pledging our allegiance to God, then it’s possible that this faith of ours is calling us to be subversives. We may not seek to be subversive, but if we live according to the Sermon on the Mount, then that’s what we’ll be. Yes, as ethicist Stanley Hauerwas puts it:

“Jesus is very clear. Wealth is a problem. That capitalism is an economic system justified by the production of wealth is therefore not necessarily good news for Christians.” [Hauerwas, Matthew: Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, (Brazos, 2006), p. 81].
Hauerwas might be right, because when I read the gospels they tend to make me feel very uncomfortable with the way I live in the world. Indeed, if we take Jesus’ sermon seriously, it’s clear that Jesus was not a capitalist.

If this is true then what are the implications of these verses for the way we live in the world? Who is influencing our thinking – Jesus or Adam Smith? As you ponder this question think about the ways in which our thinking is influenced by the media, our friends, and even the games we play. Yes, have you ever played Monopoly or Life? I expect you have, because we’ve played them here at church on game nights, and in fact, some of you are down right ruthless in your attempts at winning the game. There is, of course, a message to these games: The winner is the one who accumulates the most property and money. We may enjoy the games, but if we take these scriptures seriously then we must admit that they reinforce values that run counter to the gospel message.

So, what’s the alternative? Jesus says, “Do not store up treasures on earth where moth and rust consume and thieves break in and steal.” Instead, store your treasure in heaven. Consider for a moment the story of the young man who came to Jesus seeking to know what it takes to experience eternal life. In the course of the conversation we learn that this young man sincerely wanted to experience oneness with God. He had diligently kept all the commandments, but something still was missing, and so Jesus told him to sell his possessions, give the money to the poor, and then follow him. Then he would experience salvation. As the story goes, the young many walked away with deep sadness, because he had many possessions (Mt. 19:16-22). As I hear this word, I recognize that I too have many possessions, and I wonder how these possessions get in the way of my being a disciple of Jesus.

2. Which Master Should I choose?

This question gets asked in a different way in the verses that follow. Jesus talks about the eye being the lamp of the body. If the eye is healthy, then light enters the body. If it’s unhealthy then there will be darkness. Having said this, Jesus makes one of those memorable but challenging statements. You can’t serve two masters. You’ll end up loving one and hating the other. Therefore, you can’t love both God and mammon. Most modern translations translate mammon as wealth, but there’s something to be said about using the word mammon. You see the word stems from a root that means “to trust or believe in.” That was the pressing question for this young man – in what or in whom would he place his trust – his possessions or God? [Williamson and Allen, Preaching the Gospels without Blaming the Jews, (WJK, 2004), pp. 22-23].

This issue of trust is important, because it says a lot about why we hoard and worry. When we put our trust in God who feeds the birds and clothes the grass with flowers more beautiful than anything that Solomon in his glory might wear, then we need not worry. But to do this, we must put our focus on Christ alone.

I say this knowing full well that we need jobs, stores, government services, and more to sustain our lives. But what Jesus seems to want us to understand is that while we can’t live on bread alone, we do need our daily bread. The question is – how do we draw a line between our daily bread and that treasure which captures our hearts and minds and then leads us away from God? The line may be very thin, but as Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, it may have to do with “what your heart clings to.” [Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, (Fortress, 2001) 4:163]. Yes, whatever your heart clings to, that is your master.

3. First Things First

If our master is that to which our hearts cling, then who should we respond to the message of this morning’s gathering song?

“Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and God’s righteousness,
and all these things shall be added unto you. Alleluia, Alleluia!
This song, and the Scripture upon which it is based, invites us to prioritize our lives around the reign of God. Yes, the message is clear – first things first. The problem is, we’ve been led to believe, that we live in a world of scarcity. We’re constantly being told that there’s not enough land, water, or food, to go around. While I don’t want to instigate class warfare in this sermon, it’s becoming clear that gap between the haves and the have-nots is increasing at an alarming rate. The wealthy are getting wealthier, while the poor are getting poor. And, as for the traditional middle class, upon which our society is based, there are signs that it’s in danger of extinction. Why is this?

Although we’ve been told that our nation, our state, and our local governments are broke, we’ve also seen tax breaks get extended for the wealthiest amongst us, even as taxes are increasing for those at the bottom of the economic ladder. Somehow that doesn’t seem right. But, it shouldn’t surprise us, because with wealth comes power, and if our lives are guided by the principle of scarcity, then we will not only worry about tomorrow, we will build as many barns as possible to hoard our treasures. We will build fences and walls to protect our treasures. Yes, that is what we will do, if we believe in the principle of scarcity. In such a world, injustice and violence reign because we think that we can survive only if we increase and protect our treasure on earth.

But, what if we put the kingdom first? What if we put our trust in God -- not the God of scarcity, but the God of abundance, the God who feeds the birds and decorates the fields with glorious flowers? How will we treat our neighbor then? As we seek to answer these questions, I want to offer another word of wisdom from Stanley Hauerwas:

Abundance not scarcity, is the mark of God’s kingdom. But the abundance must be made manifest through the lives of a people who have discovered that they can trust God and one another. Such trust is not an irrational gesture against the chaos of life, but rather a witness to the very character of God’s care of creation. (Hauerwas, Matthew, p. 83)
Yes, we worship and serve a God who pours out upon us the treasures of heaven, so that we might share this abundance with one another. But this requires that we put our trust in God and store up our treasures in heaven. Yes, let us seek first the kingdom of God, and then all that we need will be provided us.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
2nd Sunday of Lent
March 20, 2011

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Putting on a Show -- The fifth sermon on the Sermon on the Mount

Matthew 6:1-18

We live in a consumer-driven society. Everything from education to religion is a commodity that can be bought and sold, which means that we can easily become consumers of religious commodities. When this happens we cease being disciples of Jesus, and become customers in search of the best deal. We in the “church business” know this to be true, because we go to seminars and workshops and read books that tell us how to market ourselves and create entertaining “worship services” so we can compete with the brand next door. None of this is new, but the resources available to us today are increasingly sophisticated.

Now, some religious institutions do a better job than others at creating attractive venues. And, although there are lots of media-savvy megachurches out there today, no one has done it with quite the flair for the dramatic as Aimee Semple McPherson. Back in the 1920s and 1930s, Aimee’s illustrated sermons and radio ministry reached millions. Not only was she a preacher, she was a celebrity, who drew huge crowds and lots of media-coverage wherever she went. My mother has told me how my atheist grandfather loved to listen to her sermons on the radio as they drove home from her grandparents’ home on Sunday evenings. Now, Aimee didn’t change my grandfather’s mind about religion, but he was entertained. What made Aimee successful is that she knew how to compete with Hollywood, and many others have learned her lessons as well.

While church needn’t be boring, the message that comes to us in the Sermon on the Mount, which we return to this morning after going with Jesus to the Mount of Transfiguration, seems to challenge this consumerist vision of religion. As we’ve been making our way through the Sermon on the Mount, we’ve seen Jesus challenge our habits and our world views, and he doesn’t let us off the hook in this morning’s gospel reading from Matthew 6.

The Sermon on the Mount challenges us to take the narrow path, the one that leads into the desert where both privation and temptation await (Matt. 4:1-11). The path that Jesus takes is very different from the consumer-driven religion that prevails in our time. Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest and writer on spirituality, suggests that we live in an “adolescent culture,” and that this culture influences our faith expressions. According to Fr. Rohr, there are two halves to our lives. The first half of life is focused on identity formation and the search for security. That is, the focus of this first stage of life is the self. We all go through this stage, because it’s essential to our development. But, unfortunately, too often we stay put in this first half reality. As the book of Hebrews puts it – we stay with the milk rather than moving onto the meat. In the first half of life, our focus tends to be on the boundaries. We often see the world in either/or categories. We do this because we’re still forming our identities. But, the point of the journey isn’t staying put in this identify formation stage, but rather to move into the second stage of life, where we’re ready to take risks and see the world in more both/and terms. We grow spiritually and intellectually, because we’ve experienced deprivation and suffering, and we’ve not only survived, but we have thrived. Rohr’s point is that death comes before resurrection [Richard Rohr, Falling Upward, Jossey Bass, 2011 – forthcoming, pp. 4ff].

1. Beware the Hypocrites

In a consumer-driven reality, it’s easy to find ourselves “playing church.” That is, we find ourselves putting on a religious show to catch the attention – not of God – but of our neighbor. Worship can be a powerful drama that changes lives if the audience is God. But when we perform our faith to catch the eye of our neighbors, then according to Jesus we have become hypocrites. Jesus says to the disciples, and to us:

Be careful that you don’t practice your religion before people to draw their attention. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven (Mt. 6:1).
Although consumer-driven religion seems to be thriving, the majority of those people leaving the church or who believe that the church is of no use in their spiritual journeys, point to hypocrisy as the trigger. According to the polls, they like Jesus, but not the institution that claims his name.

Now, it might help us to better understand Jesus’ message if we know that in the first century, a hypocrite was an actor. And in the religious realm, a hypocrite was one who put on a religious mask so that their piety might be seen by others. Jesus says that when you engage in public acts of piety such as giving alms, praying, or fasting, hoping that you’ll be seen by your neighbors, then that’s all the reward you’ll get. That reward may seem attractive, after all, politicians love to invoke God’s support and blessing on their actions. In fact, we expect this of them. We wonder about politicians that don’t wear their religion on their sleeves. As for the rest of us, at least in times past, many people hoped to derive a social benefit from their church membership. In days past if you wanted to get ahead in society you had to be a member of not just any church, but the right church. Not only that, you needed to be seen as a pillar of the church. But, Isaiah’s answer to those who complained that God wasn’t seeing their fast speaks to this view of religion.

Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high (Isa. 58:3-4).
The world is watching us, and they become disillusioned when we say we love God and neighbor, and then support torture or advocate balancing the budget on the backs of the poor.

2. Practicing True Faith

In this selection from the Sermon on the Mount Jesus addresses the issue of public piety, focusing on giving alms, praying in public, and fasting. The message is really clear – if we do these things so that we’ll be noticed by our neighbor, then that’s all the benefit we’ll receive. It appears that what’s at issue here is one’s motivation.

So, Jesus says – when it comes to giving of alms, something we’ve been asked to do this morning in response to the disaster in Japan – offer your alms without making a big deal about it. Don’t announce the amount. Don’t ask for a plaque. Just give from the heart in response to God’s call to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

And as for prayer, when you pray in public don’t design the prayer to attract words of praise for your eloquence. Now, should someone offer a word of thanks for your words, its okay to receive that word with grace and humility, but Jesus says to us – don’t let that be your motive. In case we need some guidance in this, Jesus offers us a model of prayer. He tells the disciples – pray like this – and offers to them the foundation of the prayer we pray each week. Although there is great beauty to this prayer, it’s also simple and straightforward. It calls on us to pledge our total allegiance to God, whom we are to declare holy. We pledge our service to God’s kingdom, and then make our requests of God – simple requests of food, forgiveness, and deliverance from temptation and evil.

And when it comes to fasting, brush your hair and put on decent clothes, so that no one will know you are depriving yourself of food or pleasure. The point of this act of asceticism, is not to show everyone how “spiritual” we are, but instead, it is designed to put us in a better position to encounter the presence of God.

Church of Christ pastor Jerry Taylor puts it all in perspective:

Spiritual power is not based on the approval rating we receive for the performance of our pious acts of religion. We become spiritually impotent when we allow our righteousness to walk around on the broken crutches of religious showmanship. [Jerry Taylor, “May I have Your Attention,” in Preaching the Sermon on the Mount, (Chalice Press, 2007), Kindle loc. 2012-16.]

3. Secret Blessings

There is a constant theme in this passage. Jesus seems rather insistent that the God who sees in secret, will bless us in secret. If we’re willing and able to move from the first half of life into the second, then we can leave behind matters of identity and security, and begin to move into maturity. The blessings that come from being in the presence of God may not be as apparent to our neighbors, but if we’re willing to take the narrow path, the one Scott Peck called the “road less traveled,” then we’ll begin to see our lives and our relationships transformed.

As Richard Rohr suggests, in the first half of life, we focus on the externals – on the law, correct rituals, and correct beliefs. While these are not bad things – they help us in creating containers that will allow us to share in life changing encounters with God – they shouldn’t be the end of the journey. Instead, as we move into the second half of life, we will find ourselves caught up in the burning presence of God. That is, like Moses’ burning bush, “authentic God experience always ‘burns’ you, yet does not destroy you” (Ex. 3:2-3) [Rohr, p. 13]. Yes, we can be content with the show, but if we are content with the show then we’ll miss out on the secret blessings of mystical union with God.
Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
First Sunday of Lent
March 13, 2011

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

God's Chosen Fast -- A Homily for Ash Wednesday

Isaiah 58:1-12

Tonight we begin our Lenten journey toward Good Friday and Easter. This is a season of preparation and reflection. It’s a time to look inward and discern areas of life that we’ve not given over to God. Traditionally it’s also a season of fasting, where we seek to emulate Jesus who went into the wilderness, fasted for forty days and forty nights, and faced temptation (Matt. 4:1-10). The point of all of this reflection and fasting is that it’s designed to make us more aware of God’s presence and also more aware of the presence of our neighbors.

We begin the journey by remembering our own transgressions, for as the Psalmist reminds us, we are all sinners. As we remember these sins, we receive a mark upon our foreheads as a tangible reminder of our sinful state, and then we offer prayers of confession and receive a word of forgiveness.

Tonight I’ve chosen to focus on the word from Isaiah, which speaks to “God’s Chosen Fast.” In Matthew’s gospel we read Jesus’ words about fasting. He challenges those who make a spectacle of their fasts by presenting themselves in a rather disheveled manner so that their neighbors might know that they’re fasting (Mt. 6:16-18). But Isaiah takes a different approach. This post-exilic prophet challenges his people who have come to believe that their fasting will get God’s attention. They say: “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” (Isaiah 58:3). Isaiah says to them – in your behavior you dishonor this practice.

Although giving up chocolate or some other pleasure might be a good spiritual discipline to adopt during this season, Isaiah calls us to a higher level of understanding. Fasting may discipline our bodies so we can give greater attention to God’s presence, but as Isaiah makes so very clear, God is less interested in our observance of certain fast days than in the way we live our daily lives as God’s people.

Isaiah says to the people, you come out and fast and yet at the same time you oppress your workers and quarrel with each other. If your fasting is accompanied by such actions, then this won’t get your voice heard by God. Instead, God has chosen another fast for us, calling on us to

“Loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke[.] Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” (Is. 58:6-7)

As Amy Oden puts it: “The fast that God seeks calls for vigilance, for justice, and generosity, day in and day out.” (WorkingPreacher.Org, 2/6/11).

Isaiah’s call for justice is echoed by a word given by the 4th century bishop and theologian Basil of Caesarea who writes:

As we take this Lenten Journey, let us consider the kind of fast that God is calling us to pursue. Isaiah writes that if we engage in this fast, we will be blessed. What is most important, we will be blessed in the knowledge that we are partners with God as moral agents in this world, working with God and empowered by God, we might pursue righteousness and justice in the world.

This is a time for us to look inwardly, to assess our path, to see if our vision is clouded by sin. It is a time to purge ourselves of those things that keep us from being all that God would have us be. The fast that God has chosen for us is one that leads to a new life and partnership with the God we know in Jesus Christ, who makes known to us God’s steadfast love.
Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
Ash Wednesday
March 9, 2011

Are you not a robber, you who consider your own that which has been given you solely to distribute to others? This bread which you have set aside is the bread of the hungry; this garment you have locked away is the clothing of the naked; those shoes which you let rot are the shoes of him who is barefoot; those riches you have hoarded are the riches of the poor.  (Quoted in Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Enuma Okoro, Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, Zondervan, 2010, p. 178).

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Transfigured and Transformed! -- A Sermon

Matthew 17:1-9

For the past several weeks we’ve been with Jesus on a mountain being instructed in the ways of God’s realm. This morning we’re taking a brief detour to another mountain, where Jesus’ identity is more fully revealed to us. In this scene from Matthew’s gospel we watch as Jesus is transfigured and transformed, so that we might see more fully the presence of God in him. As we attend to this story, it becomes clear that understanding the gospels requires a bit of an imagination. Without imagination you might end up doing what Jefferson did and start cutting out the parts of the gospel that don’t seem to make sense to the rational mind. Now, I’m a rather analytical, rationalist type, and so this takes some doing on my part. Since I’m not much into poetry (though I do love music) and I don’t read a lot of novels (though I do like movies), I struggle with poet W.H. Auden’s suggestion that Christians need to be poets. Although I struggle with this word of wisdom, I believe he’s right – If we’re going to understand and appreciate the story of the Transfiguration, we must trust our imaginations.


The story of the Transfiguration takes us to one of those “thin places” where the membrane separating heaven and earth becomes transparent and we can see the things of God more fully and clearly. In this story, we see Jesus unveiled. His full identity shines through, even if for only a moment.

If we go back a chapter, we’ll find the Disciples trying to answer the question of Jesus’ identity. Jesus asks them “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answers the question with the “Confession” that we make when we join with this assembly and are baptized into Christ: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Peter makes this “Good Confession,” but we quickly learn that he doesn’t quite understand the meaning of his words.

Now, six days later, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up on a mountain where the question of identity is again raised, and to understand the meaning of this event we’ll need to look at reality a bit differently so that we can comprehend the glory and majesty of God who is present to us in Jesus. Writer Madeleine L'Engle, offers this poetic vision of the Transfiguration:

Suddenly they saw him the way he was,
the way he really was all the time,
although they had never seen it before,
the glory which blinds the everyday eye
and so becomes invisible. This is how
he was, radiant, brilliant, carrying joy
like a flaming sun in his hands.
This is the way he was -- is -- from the beginning,
and we cannot bear it. So he manned himself,
came manifest to us; and there on the mountain
they saw him, really saw him, saw his light.
We all know that if we really see him we die.
But isn't that what is required of us?
Then Perhaps, we will see each other, too.
[Madeleine L'Engle, Glimpses of Grace, (San Francisco: Harper-Collins, 1996), 64.


As we try to imagine the scene on the Mount of Transfiguration, it might be helpful to view a parallel scene in the Exodus story. As I read this passage consider the similarities and the differences in these two encounters with God.

The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. To the elders he had said, “Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.” Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights. (Ex. 24:12-18 NRSV).

Later on in the Exodus story we learn that after Moses returned from the mountain with the Tablets of the Law, his face was so radiant from being in God’s presence that the Israelites were afraid to look at him, and so he veiled himself so that he could enter the community (Ex. 34: 29-35).

As I read these two stories together, what seems apparent is that Moses’ radiance is a reflection of encountering God’s presence in the cloud, but Jesus’ radiance comes before the appearance of the heavenly Cloud of Presence. Therefore, it’s not so much a reflection as an unveiling. Therefore, in that moment the Disciples catch a glimpse of Jesus’ full identity. Only then, do Moses and Elijah appear to Jesus, and in their appearance we envision representatives of the Law and the Prophets, who bear witness to Jesus’ mission.


At first Peter doesn’t know what to make of all of this. He reacts like many of us do when we’re around famous people or people we admire. He sort of makes a fool of himself. In trying to make sense of Peter’s response, an occasion comes to mind. While waiting with a family at a surgical waiting room in Santa Barbara, we discovered that actor John Cleese – of Monty Python and James Bond fame – was also present in the waiting room. You see, his wife was in surgery, and while our group recognized him, we didn’t bother him, but as always happens, somebody broke the rules. One woman just couldn’t help herself, and so she asked him for an autograph, which he of course refused. Our group lent a nod of understanding and support to his action, but I can understand how easy it is to get caught up in the moment when you’re around someone famous.

Peter was a bit like that autograph seeker when he realized that Moses and Elijah were present, and he just couldn’t contain himself. Overwhelmed, he blurts out:

"Lord this is wonderful! If you want me to, I'll make three shrines, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah. (Matt. 17:4 NLT).
Although it’s not really clear what Peter intended by this offer, because the Greek word can be translated as both tent and shrine, it seems as if Peter had a shrine in mind. Moses and Elijah surely were worthy of a shrine, but now it seemed as if Jesus might be worthy of one as well.

But there is another side to this story. Thomas Keating, a Cistercian monk and writer, suggests that maybe Peter wanted to prolong the experience, and so he offered to build tents for the three men, whom he now recognizes as being transcendent beings.

If we perceive the divine presence in some facsimile of this clarity, we are fascinated, absorbed, and delighted. Peter's response was to want to stay there forever. The more profound the experience of union, the more one cannot help but wish to prolong it. [Thomas Keating, Reawakenings, (NY: Crossroads, 1992), 117.]
Like anyone who has experienced something as profound as an encounter with God, Peter lost all interest in the world below, and wanted to stay put. This is, of course, often true of our mountain top experiences. It’s hard to come down from the mountain. Moses experienced it, so did Peter.


Although Peter got caught up in the transformation of Jesus’ appearance and then Jesus’ conversation with Moses and Elijah, what happened next transcended even these two earlier events. Even as Peter made his offer to Jesus, a cloud descends on the mountain, and a voice from the cloud speaks words that readers of the Gospel first heard at the baptism of Jesus:

This is my beloved Son, and I am fully pleased with him. Listen to him (vs. 5 NLT).
As this voice echoes from the skies, Peter and his companions discover that Moses and Elijah have disappeared, leaving Jesus alone with them. This voice demanded that they listen to Jesus, because he is the one who will speak for God in this new age. He is the new law giver and the new prophet. As we ponder this scene, Thomas Keating again offers a helpful interpretation:

Listen not just to his words to which they had been listening when they were on the plain, but "listen to him," the divine person who is speaking to you. Listen to the divine presence that is incarnate in this human being. Listen to the infinite Silence out of which the incarnate Word emerges and to which it returns. (p. 118)
Having heard the voice of God, they fall on their faces in fear, but Jesus gently touches them and invites them to get up and not be afraid.

Having encountered the divine presence the three disciples follow Jesus down the mountain. They’ve experienced something too profound for word; something that they really can’t understand until after the resurrection. With that in mind, Jesus tells them not to talk about their experiences until after the resurrection. As Keating puts it: “There would be no point of talking about it because no one on the plain would understand unless they had climbed a similar mountain." (p. 119).

In Matthew’s story of the transfiguration, we receive an invitation to climb the mountain so that we too might be transformed by our encounter with God. In a moment we will gather at the Table, and we as break bread together we will encounter this presence, even as the disciples experienced it on the road to Emmaus – as Luke’s Gospel tells the story of the post-Resurrection unveiling of Jesus (Lk 24:13ff).

As we hear this story, may we let loose our imaginations, those precious gifts that allow us to see beyond what is rational, so that we might join Peter, James, and John, in seeing the fullness of God’s splendor revealed in the person of Jesus. Then we too will be transformed, as Paul puts it, by the renewing of our minds, so that we might discern the will and purpose of God (Rom. 12:2).
Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
Transfiguration Sunday
March 6, 2011