“In the Making Still”

March 2, 2014

 

Exodus 24:12-18

Matthew 17:1-8

 

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 advertisement.

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 glittering?

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.

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:

with shepherds 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:

Jesus glowing 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.

As Matthew 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 of death.

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.

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 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 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.”

The 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 feeling.

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.