Transfiguration Sunday — February 15, 2015

Stumbling Around in the Light

See the complete order of worship below, including hymns and prayers:

Mark 9:2-9 
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean. 

2 Corinthians 4:1-12

Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.
Let us begin with prayer:  Holy and gracious God, we do seek your light, your glory, your Word for us revealed in the person of Jesus Christ and the power of your Holy Spirit.  Speak to us this day, we pray.  Amen.

Somewhere along the line, we were told a big, fat lie.  Somewhere along the line we were led to believe that when life feels steady, secure, predictable and comfortable, God is close to us.  

Or maybe we weren’t taught that exactly, but we somehow picked up the notion that God is most present when life is going well.  But that’s not true. The reason I know this it isn’t true is because the Bible tells an entirely different story. In Scripture, the entrance of God into human experience is almost always accompanied by disruption, and not always of the most comforting kind.
Like today’s story from Mark.  If there is any scene in the Bible that defies easy interpretation, and disrupts the world of those who witness it, it is the transfiguration.  Jesus takes three of his disciples up a mountain with him and right before their eyes, Jesus is radically changed. Jesus’ clothes become dazzling white in a way that even Mark has trouble describing.  They are white “like no one on earth could make them,” lit up with a shimmering glow that is beyond the ability of our minds to comprehend.  

And then something even more mind-blowing happens.  Jesus is joined by Moses and Elijah — the heart and soul of Israel’s history.  Not only are Moses and Elijah the representatives of the law and the prophets, they also share the distinction of having been dead for many centuries.  Yet there they are, alive again and talking with Jesus who is lit up like a firecracker.
The scene is crazy.  It’s like a dream.  A dream that makes no sense.  For centuries, preachers and teachers and all manner of holy people have tried to make meaning of the transfiguration, to make it more orderly and, well, preach-able.  Which is understandable.  In fact, that’s what Peter tries to do.  He tries to make meaning out of what he’s seeing by placing it into a theological framework that he knows well.  When Peter sees Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus, he thinks “this must be it!”  This must be the “Day of the Lord,” when God draws history to its climax and defeats Israel’s enemies – a day which is associated with the Feast of Booths.  Peter takes this incomprehensible scene on top of that mountain and does his best to fit it into a framework he already knows so be can make sense of what he sees.  Without the framework, what he sees makes no sense. That’s why Peter offers to build the dwellings or booths.  It’s not an odd or misplaced impulse at all. 
But it’s the wrong impulse.  Peter is interrupted by God’s voice – “This is my Son.  The beloved.  Listen to him!”  Peter almost misses what God wants him to see.  Peter wants to fit what is happening into a plan of his own, a framework he can understand.  God, however, seem to wants Peter and the others to simply experience the wonder and mystery of Jesus.
We do the same thing as Peter – all the time.  Something happens that is disturbing, confusing or frightening for us.  We try to fit a disruption in our lives into a “divine plan.”  Or come up with a new plan of our own.  But I wonder if we sometimes we just need to sit down, shut up and experience the mystery and wonder and work of God.  Which is filled with all the meaning in the world.  Yet it is meaning that is sometimes beyond us.  Which is as frustrating for us as it must have been for Peter. 
One of the deep privileges for me during my trip to South Sudan was the opportunity to meet with the PCUSA missionaries serving in that part of Africa.  When the civil war broke out in late 2013, the missionaries, all of who were scattered throughout the country, had to be evacuated.  Some went to Uganda or Ethiopia.  Eventually, as the situation stabilized, they all moved to Juba.  They are now waiting for their return to the field.
The stories they told our Pittsburgh group when we gathered with them around a dinner table were, to put it mildly, quite harrowing.  Many of them were based in Malakal, the capital of the Upper Nile state in South Sudan, which endured horrific violence.  Schools and churches were burned to the ground, along with most of the city.  Patients in the city’s one small hospital were executed in their beds by soldiers.  There is literally nothing left of the once bustling town of 150,000 people except for 8,000 civilians still crammed into a UN camp outside the city.  The PCUSA missionaries in Malakal held out as long as they could, but as the violence grew, they were evacuated. 

One of the missionaries talked about lying in her bed, hearing nearby gunfire, and debating whether or not she would be safer in her bed with bullets flying outside her window, or under her bed where she’d most certainly have to deal with rats.
Our missionaries in South Sudan are extraordinary, awesome people.  All of them have faced situations that are difficult for us to imagine.  And yet, I have to also say, that they are, without a doubt, the most faithful people I have ever met.   Which makes no sense to me. They have seen the worst of what human beings can do to each other and yet, they continue to persevere with crazy, seemingly misplaced hope that God is present and active and creating something new and maybe even beautiful in South Sudan.  They don’t try to make meaning of what they have seen, and they call it part of some divine plan. They may be the most foolish people I’ve ever met, but they are fools of the very best kind.  They are fools for Christ, or, as I like to put it, goofballs for the gospel.  They are the kind of people who can endure the most extreme and violent disruptions in their ministry and lives, and still somehow manage to point to the glory of Christ.   
I don’t know how they do it.  Yet, I think they have something to teach those of us whose tolerance for disruption and dislocation is pretty low. 
In our text from 2 Corinthians, Paul is also facing extreme challenges in his ministry.  He is preaching his heart out but seeing very little success.  In fact, he is, as he says, “afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible…” Paul knows that anything good that might come out of his work has nothing to do with him, but everything to do with God’s mercy.  Paul is entirely realistic.  Paul knows how the world works, all too well.  He understands that some people are going to “get” what he preaches.  For others, the Word of God will bounce off them like Teflon.  God’s Word doesn’t depend upon Paul’s skill as a preacher or church planter.  Everything depends upon the glory of God, not the glory of Paul’s plans.  All Paul can do is continue to create a space for those to whom he preaches to discover the living Christ for themselves. 
God’s glory shines everywhere, and yet we in the church continue to stumble around, even in the dazzling light of all that glory.  And part of our problem, I believe, is that as much as we desire to encounter the living God, we are also scared to death of what that means.  We are frightened out of our wits that being in the presence of God means we will have to be changed or transformed or stretched in some deeply uncomfortable and unfamiliar way.  So when God comes near to us – even in an event not as nearly as dramatic as the transfiguration, or the civil war in South Sudan or the conversion of Saul to Paul – we try to cram that disruptive experience into a plan that we can manage.  Or a plan we think we can manage.  The Christian Church has been doing just that for nearly 2,000 years.  We’ve tried to stuff the glory of God into a manageable box.  Not that the church is a bad thing.  It’s just not the whole story of God.
And perhaps the most frightening prospect of all is this – maybe there is no “plan,” divine or otherwise.  Perhaps there’s only love.  

Maybe our job in the church isn’t to help people fit their disruptive experiences of live into a “divine plan,” but simply to create a space for people to experience the wonder and mystery of God’s divine love.  

Maybe the task of the church is not to help people believe correctly or behave correctly, but simply to help people remove whatever veil that is blocking their view of Jesus, and help them fall more completely in love with him so they can follow him wherever it is he calls.
The transfiguration isn’t a story about ourgoing up to somehow be more like Jesus, it’s a story about Jesus coming down, all the way down into our brokenness, fear, disappointment, and loss to be with us. And, of course, Jesus goes even further than that. We will soon watch Jesus travel to the cross, embracing all that is hard, difficult, and even despicable in life in order to transform death itself so we might live in hope knowing that wherever we may go, however badly we stumble, Jesus has already been there.  We can look at our brokenness through the lens of hope and redemption, taking a God’s eye view just as the disciples witnessed on the mountaintop.
Transfiguration does not change what is going to happen in Jerusalem.  And it certainly doesn’t change the way the disciples are going to react to Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion and death.  In fact, when all is said and done, Jesus never really is going to give them a detailed plan for how to build a church when he is gone.  I find that comforting because we too enter into moments that we believe are moments of transformation, thinking we finally have a plan, only to find ourselves no further along in our journey of faith than we were when we began. 
So we enter into the story with same imperfect understanding as Peter, James and John.  Up on the mountaintop, the door between this world and the next has cracked open for a moment, and the light reveals the glory of the Son and the love of the Father for Jesus and for us.  The light also reveals who we are…a bunch of tired, dusty pilgrims with blisters on our feet from the long climb.   It is not a light that will keep us always from stumbling when things get messy.  But it is a light that will keep our eyes fixed on Jesus.  The Son.  The beloved.  Let’s listen to him. 
Thanks be to God.
The order of worship for today would have been:

February 15, 2015              11:00 A.M
Transfiguration Sunday
The Rev. Susan Maxwell Rothenberg, Supply Pastor
“On Transfiguration Sunday, this epistle text and the Gospel reading from Mark 9, in drawing upon the motif of Moses’ shining face, together point us toward the glory of God as revealed in Christ. These images remind us that it is the glory of God and not that of his disciples (then or now) that makes possible the proclamation of the Gospel, a proclamation that is not guaranteed to convince all who hear it in spite of the clear glory of Christ that is attached to it.”
Craig Vondergeest, Good
L: The world is changing rapidly before us;
P: God’s love endures forever.
L: Our ways of understanding have been challenged and stretched;
P: God’s love endures forever.
L: What we once knew has passed away, and we do not know what lies before us.
P: God’s love endures forever.
L: May we move forward as the body of Christ, assured of God’s presence;
P: May we embrace the future with hope. May we know God’s love endures forever.
*HYMN OF PRAISE                                                             156
Sing of God Made Manifest

Sing of God made manifest
in a child robust and blest,
to whose home in Bethlehem
where a star had guided them,
magi came and gifts unbound,
signs mysterious and profound:
myrrh and frankincense and gold
grave and God and King foretold.

Sing of God made manifest
when at Jordan John confessed,
“I should be baptized by you,
but your bidding I will do.”
Then from heaven a double sign–
dove-like Spirit, voice divine–
hailed the true Anointed One:
“This is my beloved Son.”

Sing of God made manifest
when Christ came as wedding guest
and at Cana gave a sign,
turning water into wine;
further still was love revealed
as he taught, forgave, and healed,
bringing light and life to all
who would listen to God’s call.

Sing of God made manifest
on the cloud-capped mountain’s crest,
where both voice and vision waned
until Christ alone remained:
glimpse of glory, pledge of grace,
given as Jesus set his face
towards the waiting cross and grave,
sign of hope that God would save.

We all have so many idols and false gods, which draw us away from you, God of our lives.  The seductions around us cry out so loudly, we are not able to hear you calling to us.  Your forgiveness is a mystery wrapped in your love and revealed to us in this and every moment.  Open our hearts so we may listen to you whispering our name, even as we would follow Jesus Christ, your Beloved, into our world.
L: Whether we hear a voice from the heavens or a still small voice in our hearts, listen carefully for the love of God. Believe and accept God’s love and live in God’s freedom.
P: Thanks be to God.  Amen.
*CHORAL RESPONSE                                                             132
Good Christian friends rejoice with heart and soul and voice
Now ye need not fear the grave; Jesus Christ was born to save
Calls you one and calls you all to gain the ever lasting hall.
Christ was born to save!  Christ was born to save!
When we were strangers, Christ welcomed us. Let us share the peace of Christ with one another.
L:  The peace of Christ be with you!
P:  And also with you!
GOSPEL READING                                       Mark 9:2-9                               
EPISTLE READING                                    2 Corinthians 4:1-12


SERMON                                                                        Rev. Rothenberg                                     
Stumbling Around in the Light                                                
*AFFIRMATION OF FAITH  — from the PCUSA Brief Statement of Faith (1991)
We trust in Jesus Christ, fully human, fully God. Jesus proclaimed the reign of God: preaching good news to the poor and release to the captives, teaching by word and deed and blessing the children, healing the sick and binding up the brokenhearted, eating with outcasts, forgiving sinners, and calling all to repent and believe the gospel. Unjustly condemned for blasphemy and sedition, Jesus was crucified, suffering the depths of human pain and giving his life for the sins of the world. God raised this Jesus from the dead, vindicating his sinless life, breaking the power of sin and evil, delivering us from death to life eternal. With believers in every time and place, we rejoice that nothing in life or in death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
*HYMN OF RESPONSE                                                            189
O Wondrous Sight, O Vision Fair

O wondrous sign, o vision fair,
of glory that the church shall share,
which Christ upon the mountain shows,
where brighter than the sun he glows!

From age to age the tale declare,
how with the three disciples there,
where Moses and Elijah meet,
the Lord holds converse high and sweet.

The law and prophets there have place,
two chosen witnesses of grace;
the Father’s voice from out the cloud
proclaims his only Son aloud.

With shining face and bright array
Christ deigns to manifest today
what glory shall be theirs above
who joy in God with perfect love.

And faithful hearts are raised on high

by this great vision’s mystery,
for which in joyful strains we raise
the voice of prayer, the hymn of praise.
L: We are your house, O Lord, and the people of your promise;
P: Help us to hold fast our confidence in your saving glory.
L: God of Glory, the God of this city: as you once revealed yourself to Moses face to face, so you have shown yourself to the world in the glory of your Son. Help us by your Spirit to know him by faith, to love him with all our heart, and to serve him with all of our being.
P: Help us to hold fast our confidence in your saving glory.
L: God of Glory, the God of this city: your disciples once saw Moses and Elijah point to Jesus as the fulfillment of the covenant of Sinai and all the prophets’ words. Reveal yourself now to us in your Scriptures that we may behold him whose suffering and death give life to the whole world.
P: Help us to hold fast our confidence in your saving glory.
L: God of Glory, the God of this city: you once came to a world lonely and afraid and showed to us the face of love and hope. Use us to reflect your glory and grace in our world and so represent you here to those who are alone, those troubled by fears and sins, and those whose hearts are grieved by their own faulty decisions or the harm of others.
P: Help us to hold fast our confidence in your saving glory.
L: God of Glory, the God of this city: your Son came to reveal your kingdom through words and works of mercy. Give to the sick your healing and to the suffering your hope. May your saving will and the glory of your steadfast love support all who call upon you in the day of trouble.
P: Help us to hold fast our confidence in your saving glory.
L: God of Glory, the God of this city: you once spoke through a cloud to your disciples of old that they might see Jesus by faith even when earthly eyes cannot see. Grant to us this bold and courageous faith that we may see Jesus, trust in him for our salvation, and be ready to receive him when he comes again in clouds of glory. We are your house, O Lord, and the people of your promise;
P: Help us to hold fast our confidence in your saving glory.
L:  And now we pray boldly the prayer that Jesus taught us, saying…
A:  Our Father, who art in heaven…
*DOXOLOGY                                                                                                606
L: Let us give thanks, for God is good and God’s love is everlasting!
P: Thanks be to God – whose love creates us.
     Thanks be to God – whose mercy redeems us.
     Thanks be to God – whose grace leads us into the future.
*CLOSING HYMN                                                                        666
O Splendor of God’s Glory Bright

*CHORAL RESPONSE            Threefold Amen                          601                       
*Please stand in body or spirit.