Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday, "A New Name: Back to Beloved," Mark 9:2-9

Sermon 2/15/15
Mark 9:2-9

A New Name: Back to Beloved

Today we’re drawing our “A New Name” series to a close, and as the title of the sermon suggests, we’re looking again at a name that we started our series with: Beloved. Way back at the beginning of this series, I told you through my surrogate preachers Liz and Tim and Bev and Laura, that I’ve been wanting to do this series for a while. We are a body made up of people and resources from South Onondaga and Navarino and Cardiff and Cedarville. But as much as those places shaped us deeply, we’re this new thing: Apple Valley. For the children of this congregation, for those who have come to this congregation in recent years, for those who are and will become a part of this congregation, the only church they know is Apple Valley, this new creation God has formed. We treasure our history, the legacy of the congregations that birthed this one, but we also treasure this new name, this new creation that God is making.
So we began, on Baptism of the Lord Sunday, by reminding ourselves that God called Jesus Beloved in his baptism, and we are God’s beloved too. Our primary identity, in a world that is constantly trying to tell us who we are and who we should be, is Beloved, God’s children, created in God’s image. When God says these words to Jesus, they are intimate and personal: “You are my Son, the beloved, with you I am well-pleased.” But in our text for today, we hear this same name, beloved, in a different way. Our scene in Mark opens just after the scene we read about in Matthew’s gospel last week. Jesus had been asking the disciples who people were saying he was, and then asked them to answer the question himself. Peter answered the Jesus was the Messiah, but then got off track when he heard Jesus talk about the suffering and death the Messiah was to face. Jesus sets Peter straight, saying followers of Jesus must take up the cross, deny themselves, and put themselves last, not first, in order to serve others.
Now, six days after this, Jesus takes three who have been so close to him, goes up a mountain with them, and is transfigured – changed, unveiled – before them. It’s hard to describe what this might be like. You’ll see some artists’ rendering of the transfiguration during the sermon today. The best we can say is: they were able to see Jesus’ full glory, and it was a sight to behold. Elijah and Moses appear and speak with Jesus – they represent the prophets and the law – the two pieces of God’s revelation thus far – and Jesus with them seems to represent a fulfillment of things. Peter doesn’t know what to do or say, and the three disciples are simply terrified by what they see. So Peter offers to build three dwellings for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses. He says it is good for them to be there. Peter’s ready to make it possible to stay – just remain there on the mountaintop to stay in this very holy, if also very scary, place. But then a cloud overshadows them, and they hear God’s voice saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” And then the moment is over, and they are alone with Jesus again, and he orders them, as they come down the mountain, not to tell what they experienced until after the resurrection.
            This whole passage is no doubt strange to us. But two things here are important for us to take away: first, the disciples experienced this as an extremely holy moment, where they felt like they were closer to God, and seeing more of God in Jesus, than perhaps they ever had before. Mountaintops in the scriptures are often places where people meet God, and it is from these encounters that we develop the phrase “mountaintop experience” to describe an overwhelmingly awesome experience. This, even if we don’t understand it, is what the disciples have had at the Transfiguration. And second, they want to try to stay there, remain there in that moment, prolong that time on the mountain, rather than returning to life on the ground.
            We can probably relate to both of those pieces of the transfiguration. We’ve had mountaintop experiences in our lives, I hope. Spiritual peaks or highs, moments where things seem to fall into place and we understand or experience God in a way we normally don’t, times where everything seems so good and right and meaningful. It might be at just those moments when we’re most deeply able to know and believe that we are beloved. And we’ve also experienced, I’m betting, wanting to stay in that place – stay on the mountaintop, prolong an experience where we knew the time was limited, where we knew we couldn’t stay forever.
For me, when I was younger, going to church camp every summer at Camp Aldersgate was my mountaintop place. I’ve told you, I think, how much I loved going there. As soon as Christmas was over, I would begin to wait anxiously for the arrival of the camping brochure, the list of all the camps available at Aldersgate that coming summer. Once the brochure arrived, and camps were selected, waiting until summer and camp week was so hard. I used to start packing ridiculously early - making lists of what to bring, what shirt to wear with what shorts, and tucking things away in the back of my closet, all ready for the week of camp to arrive. And then, in a flash, it would be time to take the trip to Aldersgate. During one short week at camp, it seemed so much could happen. You would meet so many people, experience so many new things, and think about and talk about your faith in a way that rarely happened in other settings, especially as a young person. And then, in another flash, it was all over. The week ended, camp ended, and being in that special place, set apart, was over for another whole year.
At first coming home from a week of camp, it was so hard to get back into things, into the normal routine, and so hard to think about waiting a whole long year to be able to go to camp again. When I was a little older, I got to work on staff at Camp Aldersgate, and I got to prolong that feeling I got from camp for a whole summer. In fact, I enjoyed that special time, that special place, that special connection with other people and with God so much that for some time I confused God's call to ordained ministry for a call to the camping ministry. When I got home from my summer on staff, I had an extremely hard time adjusting back to high-school life. I didn't want my mountaintop time to end. I wanted it to be camping season all the time. I wanted to hold on to the connection I felt with God at camp, to the connectedness to the world around me.
Dan Kimball is a pastor who authored a book called They Like Jesus But Not the Church. In the book, Kimball writes about research results that show people outside of the church have a great opinion of Jesus, his life, and his message. They just have a bad opinion – a very bad opinion – of Christians, finding them to be: hypocritical, homophobic, judgmental, and sheltered. Kimball theorizes about why this is – why do people see Christians so negatively? He concludes that without meaning to, Christians are like pretty scenes trapped in a beautiful snow globe – we live in a bubble, and we like it there, and want to stay there. We tend to mostly interact with, live near, and spend time with people who are like us and share our beliefs. Instead of being the church, the body of Christ, we focus on the church as a place, where we might invite people to come. But we’re unlikely to bring church – to bring Christ – to others. And so it is hard to reach others or be reached from inside the bubble. 
Can you relate to this image at all? I found it helpful and challenging. When we think about the Transfiguration, we can see that Peter’s immediate impulse was to create a bubble – to take this extremely holy experience and trap it, keep it, stay there and dwell in it. And we can hardly blame him. Why would he want such a profound experience to end, even if he couldn’t understand it completely? But at the same time, we have to wonder: what if Jesus had stayed up on the mountain with the disciples? What if Moses couldn’t stop basking in the wonder of the burning bush? What if Mary Magdalene stayed at the tomb with Jesus and never went to share the news? What if the shepherds and the Magi couldn’t tear themselves away from the Christ-child? What if I’d never been able to move on from summer camp? The holy places in our lives, where our place with God is confirmed, where we know we are beloved are so precious. But we’re not called to bottle them up, or put ourselves in a bubble with them – we’re called to take the holy with us as we go, to learn to find the holy in valleys, to embody God’s presence in ourselves as we go back down the mountain. That’s why when we talk about our faith lives, we usually talk not about a static place, but about faith as a journey. We worship a God who is named I AM – a living God, an active God, a God always doing a new thing. Jesus calls us to a path of discipleship using a word of movement – we’re to take up a cross and follow.
Our closing hymn is a hymn for Transfiguration Sunday called “Swiftly Pass the Clouds of Glory, written by contemporary Lutheran hymnist Amanda Husberg. Hear the words of the first verse: Swiftly pass the clouds of glory, Heaven's voice, the dazzling light; Moses and Elijah vanish; Christ alone commands the height! Peter, James, and John fall silent, Turning from the summit's rise Downward toward the shadowed valley Where their Lord has fixed His eyes. That last phrase, “where their Lord has fixed His eyes,” lets us know that the transfiguration is sort of a turning point in the gospels. After the transfiguration, Jesus “sets his face toward Jerusalem,” even as he continues to preach and teach. He begins journeying toward his crucifixion. He decidedly faces the ultimate consequences of his radical message of love. There’s no turning back. And so after Peter identifying Jesus as the Messiah, after Jesus talking about taking up the cross and following, when they travel up the mountain and see Jesus transfigured, and hear him called beloved, hear God reminding them to listen, really listen to Jesus, it is sort of a defining moment. They’ve seen Jesus in his glory, revealed, dazzling. But the work Jesus is about, the way his face is set, the people he is called to serve with his very life are back down in the valley. That’s where Jesus is headed. This is the point of no return. And the disciples still don’t get it, fully. But they follow. Because where Jesus, Beloved, goes, they follow.
Remember, the words God once said to Jesus intimately, “You are beloved,” God now says out loud, “This is my beloved.” And so too the intimate experience, the closeness to God that Peter, James, and John experience on the mountain with Jesus is meant to support, not overshadow, the work that they set out to do as they head down the mountain. And so it is with us. We are beloved, and in our holy places and moments when we feel like we’re on the mountaintop, so close to God, the desire to just stay there – us and God – is powerful. But we, dear ones, are not God’s only beloved. Jesus is God’s beloved, and with grace, extends that love to us. And so we extend it to others. We embody the love of God when we find it in others. Our God is of the mountains and the valleys, and all the places in between. And Jesus is setting his face to Jerusalem to pour his life out for others. And if he is God’s beloved, and we are God’s beloved, we are called to do the same. We are God’s beloved – thanks be to God. Trusting that, we set our face, and journey down the mountain, following Jesus. Amen.



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