“Jesus the Stranger”

February 26, 2017


Exodus 24:12-18

Matthew 17:1-9


“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.

On 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 evil.”

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.

Especially 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 time?

Writing 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.”

“Right-wing 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.

You 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.”

President Barack Obama expressed the same thoughts many times during his eight years in office.


Well, 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]

There 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.

And, 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.

Because 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 weeks ago.

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 heal.

All of this brings us to the strange lesson that we heard this morning—what is called the “transfiguration” of Jesus.

Matthew’s 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.

                        Or maybe you’re Elijah the prophet, returned from the dead.

Maybe you are the fiery Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.

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, religious nut.

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?”

Jesus addresses 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.

Our individual answers are important because they inform our common answer.

Peter’s response 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.

Jesus 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.

And both Moses and Elijah call us to interfaith cooperation, dialogue, and understanding.

Moses 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.

And 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.

On 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 cooperation.

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 destruction.

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 ourselves.

There was an example of listening recently in Iowa.

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 work.

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?”

And what did Senator Grassley do?

He 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.

Sometimes there is hope.

Sometimes there is hope.

Word 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 minorities.

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 something new.

“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.

The 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.

I 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.

 Listen to Jesus the stranger, still speaking to us today in the voice of the stranger.

Then get up.

And do not be afraid.

[i] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2017/02/17/is-anti-semitism-on-the-rise-does-anyone-care/?utm_term=.47e1615c0e00

[ii] https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/for-a-trump-adviser-an-odyssey-from-the-fringes-of-washington-to-the-center-of-power/2017/02/20/0a326260-f2cb-11e6-b9c9-e83fce42fb61_story.html?hpid=hp_hp-top-table-main_gorka-0831pm%3Ahomepage%2Fstory&utm_term=.4a3a7b04746f