It isn’t often that The United Methodist Church makes front page news in the national mainstream media. But this week, almost every major news organization was running stories about The United Methodist Church in the aftermath of the Special Session of General Conference. From the New York Times: United Methodists Tighten Ban on Same-Sex Marriage and Gay Clergy - NYTimes, ‘We Are Not Going Anywhere’: Progressive Methodists Vow to Fight Ban on Gay Clergy, and Why a Vote on Gay Clergy and Same-Sex Marriage Could Split the United Methodist Church. From the Washington Post: United Methodist Church tightens ban on gay marriage, LGBTQ clergy. From NPR: United Methodists Face Fractured Future. We’re in the news, but I don’t think the headlines are the kind we want. I don’t think, certainly, that folks thinking about exploring their faith, trying out a relationship with a church, are going to be particularly drawn to The United Methodist Church by those headlines, which reflect a denomination in pain and turmoil. I experienced a taste of this even closer to home this past week. Some of you know we hosted an event at church this past week - the New York State Council of Churches came to lead a conversation on Budget Principles for New York State. As people of faith, what would a “just” state budget look like? We invited members of the press to attend, and it was my responsibility to contact folks from the Watertown Daily Times. In my email correspondence, my contact person immediately shifted the conversation to ask about what had happened at General Conference. He said, in essence, that he couldn’t imagine that the news would be helpful in building up church attendance. And indeed, I had folks in our community contacting me this week to ask - what does this mean for gay and lesbian people I know? Are they welcome at our church? I know, friends, we have a variety of points of view in our congregation, and folks supported different plans coming to General Conference. But I also know that we strive to be a congregation that welcomes all people. In fact, we write that on our bulletin covers every week. All people are welcome here. We are not always perfect at embodying those words, but I think we can agree that that is our intention, our aim, what we strive for. Still, though: What do we do with the painful experiences of this week? How do we respond to the hurt and harm folks are experiencing? How do we respond when we’re in the news, but the news doesn’t sound so good?
Two summers ago now, I preached a series here on women in the bible - do you remember that? One of the Sundays we looked at a story from the book of Judges, the story of the Judge Deborah, and the story of a woman named Jael. When faced with a conquering army, Deborah oversaw the battle, and Jael, finding herself with the main enemy of Israel in her tent, drove a tent peg through his skull while he was sleeping. The Bible is full of fascinating stories, isn’t it? As I was preparing my sermon that week, I was sharing with friends that although I felt like folks would learn from my sermon, learn a Bible story they didn’t know, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say about the story. What should we learn about our own lives from Deborah and Jael? And one of my friends responded with a question: “What’s the good news in the text?” That simple question helped me so much - in that sermon, and since then. We can talk about Bible stories until we’re blue in the face. But if we don’t have any good news to share, we don’t have anything meaningful to share at all. We’re a people of the good news. The word “gospel” means good news. Jesus is the embodiment of good news. That God loves us, offers us grace without condition is good news. That we don’t have to wait until we die to live in God’s kin-dom, but instead can be part of bringing God’s reign to earth right now is good news. We’re people of good news. And so when we read the Bible, we read looking for good news. So that’s what I’m asking today, even as I am grieving the heartbreak in a denomination I love: Where’s the good news?
Today is a - well, a weird Sunday in the liturgical calendar, the calendar that sets the rhythm of our church year. It’s the last Sunday before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. And today, we celebrate a Sunday called Transfiguration Sunday. Transfiguration Sunday celebrates the transfiguration of Jesus. And the transfiguration itself is hard to describe, but we might understand it as Jesus’ true nature – all his divinity, his godliness – momentarily being seen while he still walked on earth with us, revealed to Peter, James, and John. For a brief moment, Jesus is transfigured, and his holiness is unveiled in a sense, and three of his closest disciples witness it. To be honest, this probably still doesn’t sound very exciting to us, does it? Maybe just more confusing than anything. And indeed, I don’t think reading about it will ever convey to us exactly what happened on that day, or what Peter, James, and John actually saw and felt. But I think we can study this passage and get a better sense of things, and learn to relate to their experiences – and I think that’s what’s key for us to finding good news today.
The text opens with “eight days later.” Eight days after what? The previous chapter tells us it is eight days after Peter answered the question “Who do you say that I am?” with “The Messiah of God” to Jesus, and then Jesus proceeds to tell them that he will suffer, be killed, and raised, and that anyone who wants to follow him should be prepared to take up a cross too. So eight days after this, Jesus takes Peter, James and John up the mountain. There he is transfigured, changed in some way, face shining like the sun, and seen speaking with Moses and Elijah, who represent the law and the prophets, the pillars of Judaism. Together, Jesus, Elijah and Moses talk about what Jesus is trying to accomplish in Jerusalem. What exactly does it mean to be transfigured? The text is vague, but here’s what we can figure out. Transfigured is like but not exactly the same as transformed. To transform means “to make a thorough or dramatic change in the form, appearance, or character of.” In other words, there’s a change, but the change can be positive or negative. But transfigured is transformation with a direction. It means “to transform into something more beautiful or elevated.” (Source: google) Writes Vanessa Chan, “While a transformation simply signifies a drastic change, a transfiguration gives it direction – towards greatness, grandeur, majesty. And in a sense,” she asks, “isn’t this what we’re ultimately all aspiring towards? It occurred to me one day that these successes I’m aiming towards are really just the surface to a deeper desire: holiness. The more we can be like Christ to those around us and in the things we do, the closer we can grow in our relationship with Him. I want to be the best version of me, and God knows what that is better than anyone else.”
Meanwhile, as Jesus is transfigured and joined by Elijah and Moses, Peter, James, and John are witnessing these events unfold. Peter, Luke tells us, doesn’t really know what he’s saying, which cracks me up, that the gospel-writer paints Peter in this act-first think-second sort of way. He just barrels ahead. So, not knowing what he’s about exactly, Peter still offers to build dwellings so that they can all just stay there on the mountain. But God speaks from the overshadowing cloud that frightens the disciples: “This is my Son, the Chosen; listen to him!” The words from God echo those spoken at Jesus’ baptism. And then Jesus is back to “normal,” and alone again with the three disciples, and they head back down the mountain, not telling anyone what they’ve experienced - at least not right away.
From texts like this one, we can easily see why we might talk about having “mountaintop experiences.” We generally use this phrase to describe a particular time when we feel close to God, where we can hear God’s voice more clearly, and where we can see the world from God’s perspective, more clearly. Mountaintop faith experiences are intense, spiritual times where it seems so much easier to see God and to understand what God wants us to do. It’s how I used to feel spending a week at summer camp when I was little – I couldn’t wait to get there, and I couldn’t wait to go back when it was over. It seemed pretty hard to capture that mountaintop experience when in the real world. I found myself thinking like Peter - couldn’t we just stay on the mountain? If God’s voice is so clear on the mountain, shouldn’t we try to be there all the time?
I’m reminded of a passage from C.S. Lewis’s The Silver Chair, Book 4 in The Chronicles of Narnia. In The Silver Chair, we meet Jill, who almost immediately makes a series of mistakes. Beyond mistakes, actually. She does some things that are hurtful. But nonetheless, she finds herself in the magical land of Narnia on a high, high mountain, and face to face with Aslan, the Great Lion, who is the Christ-figure in the series. Aslan overwhelms her. She barely knows how to be or act around him. But she wants to be there, with him, on the mountain. But instead, Aslan sends her down to the land, with a mission, actions she has to take to undo some of the harm she has caused. Aslan gives her careful instructions to follows, and Signs she will encounter to help her carry out her mission. As she is traveling, floating down off the mountain into the world, Aslan speaks these words to her. "I give you a warning," he says, "Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. And the Signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there. That is why it is so important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearances. Remember the Signs and believe the Signs. Nothing else matters."
If the air is so clear on the mountain, if we can hear and understand God so easily on the mountain, if it is on the mountain that we see Christ transfigured, elevated in glory, shouldn’t we - couldn’t we please just stay there? After all, when it is just me and God - when it is just me and Jesus, when I’m just in God’s holy presence, when I’m immersed in prayer or scripture or meditation, when I’m just “all in” to my time with God, it all seems so clear. When other people get involved, back down on the ground, it all gets so muddled and messy. Isn’t it best to stay where everything is clear?
To these heartfelt questions, God says: Nope! As cool as it is for Peter and James and John to be on that mountain with Jesus, and as awesome as their vision is of a transfigured Christ, the truth is that our move toward “greatness,” the way we transform into something that is more beautiful and more elevated is not by hanging out on the mountain, but rather immersing ourselves in life in the valleys. Jesus may have appeared in his glory on the mountain, but his ministry was among the people. His holiness came not from separating himself from others, choosing a select few to witness his holiness, but rather it came from his ministry of loving people, healing people, eating with them, listening to them, and submitting himself to being beaten, tried, and crucified rather than giving in to anything that deterred him from God’s mission for him. There is no resurrection glory without taking up the cross. Jesus’s majesty comes not from being above - literally or figuratively - the mess of the world, but from being right in it, right where the pain and hurt and suffering are.
And so it is for us. We cannot withdraw from the world. We can’t abandon God’s hurting people. We can’t stick our heads in sand, or shroud ourselves, or protect ourselves and still experience transfiguration. Jesus calls us to draw strength from the clear voice of God on the mountaintop, and to live and serve in the valleys. When we’ve heard God’s voice clearly on the mountaintop, we can learn to be translators for a world that is confused and longing to hear a voice of love amidst the cacophony of hatred and judgment and violence. We have to be the clearest pictures of Christ for the world that we can be. And so the good news is this: It is in the messiness of the world that Christ’s glory is revealed most fully, and it is exactly in the mess of the world that we find our calling. Maybe the headlines are right: We are a fractured church, a fractured world, a fractured people leading fractured lives. Thankfully, Jesus heals. Thankfully, Jesus calls us onto the mountaintop, shares his power, his life, his being with us, and sets us into the world to be healers too. God’s voice is clear on the mountaintop. And the work God calls us to is clear in the valleys. Let’s share the good news. Amen.