“From the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I
am well pleased; listen to him!”
How might we listen to Jesus in these days?
Where will we hear his voice?
. If we are to listen to Jesus we must first look at our own world. The
we might discover how this strange account from the Gospel of Matthew speaks to
our painful and sorrowful situation today.
Early last week eleven Jewish community centers across our nation
received bomb threats. They were just the latest in a total of nearly seventy
such threats since January. Yes, all of these phoned-in threats were hoaxes.
But the FBI and the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department are taking
them seriously and investigating.
Last weekend more than 100 headstones were knocked over in a Jewish
cemetery in suburban St. Louis.
Tuesday the president did denounce the latest incidents saying: “The anti-Semitic threats targeting our Jewish
community and community centers are horrible and are painful and a very sad
reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and
Some individuals and institutions—most
notably the Anne Frank Center—thought that the president was too slow in
providing what they considered a tepid denunciation of anti-Semitism.
relevant to our settingt is the number of anti-Semitic incidents on liberal
college campuses. Last August, students at Swarthmore College, the progressive,
Quaker college outside Philadelphia, found two swastikas painted on a stall in
a bathroom of the main library. A week later, they found another swastika on a
tree in the school’s woods. There have been reports of anti-Semitic incidents
at Oberlin College, the University of California at Los Angeles, Brown
University and Northwestern University.[i]
There have been no incidents yet in Iowa City—but is it simply a matter of
in the Washington Post recently, Mark Oppenheimer said: “…for
now, we Jews should worry less about whether attacks against us are ‘on the
rise,’ because it’s not clear whether they are. That’s not the most important
question, because to any student of history it’s no comfort if anti-Semitic
attacks aren’t on the rise….This
isn’t Germany in 1933. In the United States in 2017, the first to be targeted
are Muslims or Mexicans — after which they will probably come for Jews, gays,
blacks and all the other apparent undesirables… The real question a reporter
who cares about Jewish safety should ask … is about the health and safety of
other minority groups.” He concludes: “Right-wing
and nativist violence does not always begin with Jews. But by fixating on
attacks against Jews, we are forgetting the cardinal rule of Jewish
self-survival: It may not start with us, but it always ends with us.”
and nativist violence does not always begin with Jews.” So we look at the
larger picture. And along with anti-Semitism, rising or not, we also see
anti-Muslim sentiment across Europe and in our own nation.
remember that days after the 9/11 attacks, President George W. Bush insisted
the terror strikes had “violated the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith,”
telling our nation: “Islam is peace.”
Barack Obama expressed the same thoughts many times during his eight years in
Sebastian Gorka is a deputy assistant to the president. He reports to Stephen
Bannon, President Trump’s chief strategist, and is a member of his Strategic
Initiatives Group. Like Bannon, Gorka worked for the right wing Breitbart News.
Like Bannon his concern is the “new barbarity” of Islam that threatens the
Christian West. He says that the “martial” parts of the Koran predispose some
Muslims to acts of terror. Most counterterrorism experts, on the other hand,
dismiss Gorka’s ideas as a dangerous oversimplification that could alienate
Muslim allies and boost support for terrorist groups.[ii]
were multiple cases of anti-Muslim vandalism on college campuses across the
nation last year—and another case of this at the United Church of Christ related
Beloit College in Wisconsin just last month.
of course, anti-Muslim actions spill over onto people of other religions,
because hate doesn’t really know boundaries. People have been attacked simply
because their attackers assumed they were Muslim.
Recall that the first person murdered in the
United States in retaliation for the 9/11 attacks was not a Muslim, but a
Sikh—a gas station owner in Mesa, Arizona, who was shot five times.
On Thursday the news came from Kansas that two
Indian-American men were shot, one fatally. The shooter, thinking they were
Middle Eastern, shouted, “Get out of my country,” and opened fire. The victim,
as it happens, had worked in at Rockwell Collins in Cedar Rapids and was a dear
friend and colleague of Congregational UCC member Courtney Rowe. And Courtney,
we all share your sorrow.
Hate knows no boundaries. It roams freely.
of this, our
calling here is to continue and strengthen our own efforts toward interfaith
understanding and cooperation. We are called to, as our Muslim friend Shams
Ghoneim puts it, “always look for the commonalities.” So many of us joined with
the Muslims and Jews who organized the Solidarity Rally on the Ped Mall a few
Yes, I recognize that there are no great
heroics involved in standing up in front of a United Church of Christ
congregation in Iowa City and speaking about the need for interfaith
cooperation. We are, after all, members of the Consultation of Religious
Congregations, the organization of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim congregations
in this area that for years has facilitated people of different faiths talking
together and working together. And yet, if you were here a few years
ago, you might remember that an organization listed us on their “Apostasy in
Churches” web page because our participation in the Faith Shared event that
lifted up the importance of interfaith cooperation. People do note what goes on
here and religion can still divide and threaten as much as it can unite and
of this brings us to the strange lesson that we heard this morning—what is
called the “transfiguration” of Jesus.
account of this event begins by saying that it happened “six days later.” So to
gain some understanding of the story of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain
“six days later,” we need to look at what happened six days earlier.
Six days before
Jesus went up the mountain with Peter, James, and John, he gathered his
disciples and asked them: “Who do people say that I am? Is anyone catching on as they watch and listen to me?
The answers started to come:
Well, some say that you are John the Baptist, who had
recently been executed.
you’re Elijah the prophet, returned from the dead.
Maybe you are the fiery Jeremiah or one of the other
These were his friends, his followers, and so they avoided using some of
the less kind names people were giving to Jesus: blasphemer, false prophet,
Jesus was asking about his identity, not just what he knew of
himself, but also how others saw him.
Then he tightened the circle of the
discussion. “But,” Jesus asked, “Who do you
say that I am?”
not individuals but his followers as a group. When he asks: “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus uses the
second person plural. “What about all of you? Do all of you know who I am?” This question is not for individuals
alone. It is a question that still comes to us as a congregation.
answers are important because they inform our common answer.
is not his alone. He speaks for the group when he asserts: “You are the
Messiah, the Son of the living God.” In our Congregational UCC tradition and in
our time we speak together in our actions. We speak together in our common
life. By what we do and say we tell the world who Jesus is—the One who welcomes
the stranger and the outcast, the One who stands with the tortured, the One who
is with us so that even in deep despair we find a deeper joy.
Now six days
later, on the mountain in dazzling light, we see this same Jesus. But it is no
longer the Jesus we are used to seeing. There is a strangeness about him as he
shines with the very glory of God.
talks with Moses, the giver of the Torah, and Elijah, the early prophet—two
towering figures of Judaism. Moses and Elijah are important to us on this day
because they are recognized and revered by Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike.
both Moses and Elijah call us to interfaith cooperation, dialogue, and
himself was in an interfaith marriage. His father-in-law, Jethro, was a priest
in the land of Midian. He was also an advisor to Moses and their story is one
of mutual listening and respect.
when at another time Jesus spoke about Elijah, he told of the times when the
prophet brought God’s healing and life-giving power, not to the people of
Israel, but to the people of other nations who were also loved by God, who were
also valued children of God.
this mountain, then, Jesus speaks not only with two towering figures of his own
Jewish faith, but also to two towering figures of interfaith acceptance and
The fiery presence of God on Mt. Sinai,
the light coming from Jesus were intended to set us free. The light of God
shining in the darkness of our own lives is meant to empower us for action in
the world, for lives of love and mercy and kindness in the face of hatred and
We listen to this strange Jesus.
Through him we are called and empowered
to listen to the stranger—to our neighbors of different faiths, to our
neighbors who are threatened, to our neighbors whom Jesus tells us to love as
There was an example of listening recently
Some credit should be given to Senator Chuck Grassley: he’s one of the few Republicans
who decided to actually meet with constituents in a series of town halls around
the state. In Iowa Falls he heard from
Zalmay Niazy, who had risked his life working as a translator for the United
State armed forces s in Afghanistan. He had been shot twice while doing this
At the town hall meeting, Niazy said: “I am a person from a Muslim country and I am a
Muslim," said Niazy. "Who is going to save me here? Who is going to
stand behind me?”
what did Senator Grassley do?
listened. He listened as Niazy described his problems seeking asylum in the
United States. He offered to have his office help Niazy with the paperwork.
there is hope.
there is hope.
came last week that a
crowdfunding campaign started by Muslim activists had raised over $70,000 in an
effort to help repair that vandalized Jewish cemetery near St. Louis. In just three hours they had well surpassed
the original goal of $20,000.
The funding website said: “Muslim-Americans stand in solidarity with the
Jewish-American community to condemn this horrific act of desecration… We also
extend our deepest condolences to all those who have been affected and to the
Jewish community at large.”
Sometimes there is hope.
The voice of God comes out of a cloud.
In a sense it is not strange that God should speak from a cloud. The holy is
always hidden from us. That voice tells us to “listen” to Jesus.
If we are to listen to Jesus, it will be as we hear voices such as
these—voice of refugees, voices of immigrants, voices of often despised religious
As we listen to them, we are better able
to hear the one thing that Jesus actually does
say in that story of the transfiguration: “Get up and do not be afraid.”
“Get up.” In Matthew’s gospel, when
Jesus raises the dead, those are the words he uses. “Get up.” This is a call to
new life, to resurrection. As we listen to we sense that we are being called to
“Get up.” Resurrection is not something
that happens to Jesus alone. Resurrection is more than what some theologians
refer to as “the Easter event.”
Resurrection is the new life that
embraces us in our despair.
Resurrection comes toward us and we hear
the invitation: “Get up.”
“And do not be afraid.” This is the
message of Matthew’s Gospel from the angel who speaks to Joseph before Jesus is
born to the angel who rolls away the stone at the empty tomb after the
crucifixion. The angels—and remember that angel
is simply a word that means “messenger”—the angels, the messengers of God
speak. And here is Jesus with the same message: “Do not be afraid.”
This story of what is called the
“transfiguration” of Jesus is often read on this Sunday before Lent begins on
Ash Wednesday. And it is especially appropriate this year.
In worship and in the Sunday morning
adult education sessions during Lent, we will
explore how Christian faith has been deepened and enriched by encounters with
people of different religions. We will look at familiar Lenten themes, such as
temptation and fasting, to discover how Christian faith has burned brightly
following an encounter with the religious other. Sometimes a practice such as
fasting by Muslims in Ramadan has led Christians to think again about the
ancient Christian practice of fasting; or the understanding of a concept such
as suffering in another faith has prompted Christians to think again about the
Christian understanding of suffering.
theologian John Cobb described his deep encounter with Buddhism in terms of a
journey to another land and culture: the newness, sometimes strangeness of the
other, can be an enriching experience. When we return to the familiar, home is
viewed with different eyes and a deeper, perhaps more profound, appreciation.
invite you to begin this journey with other members of our congregation on Ash
Wednesday. It is especially important in these difficult and often sorrowful
days that we come together to remember the empowering compassion and mercy of
God. Maybe you weren’t planning on being here. Please, join us.
to Jesus the stranger, still speaking to us today in the voice of the stranger.
Then get up.
And do not be afraid.