“In the Making Still”
March 2, 2014
Down the street Midwest One Bank is undergoing a slow metamorphosis.
Those big graphics that wrap the scaffolding at street level show what the
building has been and what it will become. And apparently some of what it will
be includes parts of what it once was.
At the edge of the building on the Washington St. side, the good people
at Hands Jewelers have placed an advertisement that reads: “To improve is to
change; to be perfect is to change often.” It’s a quote from Winston Churchill.
Maybe it has to do with my occupation—or maybe it’s just a personality
quirk—but when I see the word “perfect” in a sentence my alarms go off. I hope
it wasn’t too obvious to others as I crossed Clinton Ave., muttering to myself
about perfection and demands and impossibility.
In the Sermon on the Mount, which we’ve been listening to on recent
Sundays, Jesus tells his followers, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly
Father is perfect.” That alone is enough to fuel many neuroses for a long time.
But I started to wonder what Bill Nusser was getting at with those words:
“To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.” And as I was
walking through the Iowa City cold I kept turning those words around in my
mind, discovering that they had as many facets as the diamond shown in the
The old Midwest One Bank building has changed several times in its
history—each change, no doubt seen as an improvement.
We, too, change often enough in our personal histories. And this
congregation has changed time and again over the past century and a half.
Improvement? We hope so.
Perfection? We know better.
Diamonds, those “perfect” gems, are, as you know, just lumps of coal made
dazzling by great pressure over great time. And that at least gives us some
hope, doesn’t it, that all the pressure we live under might some day find us
The Process Theologians would tell us, perhaps, that God’s perfection is
seen in the ways that God changes. And it may be that the only way we can be
perfect as God is perfect is to change often as God changes in the process of
creating our cosmos and in relating to the creatures in this world, especially
those who claim, as we do, to be created in God’s own image.
To change often.
And eventually I found myself returning
to that wonderfully peculiar Gospel story of change that we heard this morning.
“Jesus was transfigured…, and his face shone like the sun and his clothes
became dazzling white.”
The Transfiguration points to our
“becoming”—“changed from glory into glory,” as we sing in one hymn. We are
people in process.
The author of I John put it this way:
“Beloved, we are God’s children now: what we will be has not yet been revealed.
What we do know is this: When God is revealed, we will be like God, for we will
see God as God is.” (I John 3:2) We are God’s children now—I like that. God
knows what we will be.
The Greek of the New Testament calls it
a metamorphosis; theologians talk of transfiguration.
The stories in the Bible jar us out of
our familiar world, and carry us—however briefly—someplace we’ve never been:
we gather at a manger,
with Jesus we go
out into the desert,
with Peter we
walk on water.
And here we are this morning, high on a
mountain, squinting in the dazzling light.
We can’t get much further from our own
experience than this:
like the sun.
The long dead
Moses and Elijah—the Law and the Prophets—chatting with him.
The clear voice
of God coming out of a cloud as it does in some New Yorker cartoon.
The fiery presence of God on Mt. Sinai,
the light coming from Jesus were intended not for fear but for freedom. 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.
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.
Amid all the change, that voice tells us
to “listen” to Jesus.
presents the story, six days earlier, Jesus “began to show his disciples that
he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering, . . . and be killed, and
on the third day be raised.”
In Jesus we discover the God who suffers as we suffer—who knows the
human experience of being wounded and hurting deeply;
in Jesus we
see the God who knows what it means to be rejected, to have the very best one
has to offer be judged as insufficient;
in Jesus we see the God who is to be
stretched to the limits of life, finding the courage for life even in the face
This Jesus doesn’t always match up with what
we are seeking—even if it fits very well with what we desire.
Six days earlier Jesus told those
closest to him: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves
and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life
will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
As disturbing as these words are, there is a refreshing honesty in them
as well. The terms of following—the cost of discipleship—are stated up front.
We know what we’re getting into from the start.
These are words spoken to people who, in the words of the old hymn,
“have decided to follow Jesus.” They are not a general invitation, but words
spoken to those who are already with Jesus, people—like you and me—who
understand themselves as accepted—not because we’ve earned it, not because
we’ve been good—but simply because it is God's nature to love and accept us.
Listen to Jesus.
We listen to Jesus—not just what he says
but how he lives and how he dies. We listen not just to “change” but also to “resurrection.”
Remember, the Christian faith does not announce the immortality of the soul.
No. We proclaim the resurrection: God’s ability to bring life from death, and
to hold all creation—the living and the dead—in God’s great eternal love.
And as we listen to all that Jesus is
and all that Jesus does, we are better able to hear the one thing that Jesus
actually says in all of this.
“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 still wintry cold, calling us even in these days to set
aside a frozen rigidity, calling us toward what Flannery O’Connor called the
“spring and summer of God’s will.”
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.”
Bible is filled with the testimony of fearful disciples:
Women who ran from the empty tomb on Easter morning
because they were afraid.
Men who hid out or ran away or fell
to the ground because they didn't know what was happening.
People who did things and said
things, not because they were brave and fearless, but because they were quaking
in their sandals before the living God.
Over and over we encounter people who lacked certainty but found faith.
We are not the first to have more fear than faith.
The message still comes when you would
least expect it—in the dark night of the soul, in the day of trial. That
message is spoken by surprising voices in astonishing places. The message is
still the same: At the center of all existence is a love that will not fail, a
goodness that will stand.
This is the love of a God who comes to
us in Jesus Christ, shares our life and suffering, knows our fears and sorrows.
This is the love of a God who desires our good, who will be our strength.
“Do not be afraid.”
Matthew's account of the transfiguration speaks gently to us: “Be still
and listen.” Look once more at the Christ whom we would follow. Listen to him
as he speaks in scripture, through prayer, as we meet together. Listen as he
speaks beyond these walls in new and unexpected ways. Be still. Be open to
receive the gifts God offers.
This story of what is called the
“transfiguration” of Jesus is often read on this Sunday before Lent begins on
Ash Wednesday. As we move toward a time of thinking about our own mortality—and
even more about the life-giving death of Jesus—the curtain of reality is pulled
back so that we can see where we are heading.
We get a glimpse
of the glory of God. When we speak of the glory of God we point to an
ecstasy that includes joy and happiness, beauty and the thrill of great power
and meaning, the overflowing of all that is cherished and desired. Theologians
suggest that it is something like the feeling aroused in us by bright,
concentrated light—something that can only be described by pointing to that
As we continue
to move through these winter weary days, look around: there is the light of God
shining on our lives.
We will change.
We will change often.
We are in the making still.