Sermon for 2/23/20 Matthew 17:1-9; Transfiguration

I enjoy transfiguration Sunday as this is often called because we can all relate to mountain top experiences, I believe. Maybe it’s that wonderful vacation, an awesome conference, even a long awaited lunch out with friends, mountaintop experiences are those things that allow us to get re-energized and re-centered. Leaving the mountaintop is never fun. As I got to thinking about it, I realized why: once we leave the mountain, we have to face the truth. Vacation is over! That conference is over and our new friends are going back home! That long awaited lunch is over and (worse yet) the bill has come. The truth is always there, waiting for us, sometimes with great cruelty. So, maybe if we can stay on the mountain, we can avoid the truth. And sometimes, I wonder if we purposefully try and stay on the mountain or even create mountaintop experiences to avoid the truth. 

Today’s Gospel lesson takes place (of course) on top of a mountain. Peter, James, John, and Jesus had made a nice hike up a high mountain. The disciples couldn’t have known what was to happen next. It must have felt like a dream or some kind of out of body experience. Jesus’ face started to glow, practically blinding them. Then his clothes, we are told, turn a dazzling white. And if that’s not enough, Moses and Elijah appeared there with him. Then(!) it gets even better! We hear from God. Another bright cloud, and from that bright cloud comes a voice “This is my son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” The story could end right there and be pretty awesome. I don’t blame the disciples for wanting to stay on that mountaintop. Up there, they have the Jesus they want: pure, blameless, in the company of prophets, and affirmed as God’s beloved son. This is the Jesus we want. If we leave the mountain, we’ll be faced with the Jesus we get: the Good Friday Jesus, bloody, beaten, bruised, eventually crucified and dead. So, rather than face the truth, the disciples try to convince Jesus to stay on the mountaintop. 

Upon hearing the voice of God, the disciples are shaken to their core, fell to the ground in fear, and cower. I don’t blame them, I probably would have done the same thing. Then, as only Jesus could, he brings the disciples comfort. He touches them and encourages them. “Get up” he says and then, “do not be afraid.” I needed to hear this from Jesus. Maybe you do too. Here’s the truth, my beloved. 2020 has been the hardest year of my ministry with you thus far and it’s only February. As I have been preparing for Lent, which for me brings with it its own hosts of emotions, it’s tempting to me to want to stay on the mountaintop. I guess I fear the truth of difficulty, challenges, and just life at the bottom of the mountain. I worry about how much harder the truth is going to get. 

I am still wrestling with all of the emotions that accompany burying someone so young like Tristan. And I would be lying to you if I didn’t admit that the financial challenges we discussed at the annual meeting and that still loom keep me up too many nights a week. Of course I have my own personal challenges, nothing that is new: mothering, supporting a PhD student, living in limbo of what comes next, maybe we’ll move, maybe we won’t, being a daughter and sister, maintaining friendships, all of that. If I stay on the mountaintop (oh, by the way, you’re staying up here with me) then nothing can get worse, right? We don’t have to face the truth of what happens tomorrow, or next week, or next month. We can stay on this mountain and bask in the glory of Jesus, God’s beloved Son. Sounds great to me. Beloved, this is called avoidance. 

Then Jesus, doing what he does best, says do not be afraid. And that’s not all. See, we serve a God who is with us literally every single step of the way. When God says that Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us, it’s true. In our lesson today, the disciples don’t go back down the mountain alone, Jesus goes with them. And it’s the same for us. I sometimes remind you (and me) that we are resurrection people. That is still true. We are resurrection people. We are Easter Sunday people. We are Christ is risen indeed people. However, we are none of that without being Good Friday people. And in order to be Good Friday people, sometimes we have to come down from the mountain. We have to tell hard truths. We have to be brave together. We have to be vulnerable together. And in the midst of all of it, we trust, more than anything, that God is with us because Jesus is who he always has been and always will be. 

I don’t know, maybe you’re not like me. Maybe your 2020 has been phenomenal fireworks and celebration after celebration thus far. I rejoice with you, really I do. But, if you’ve been camped out on the top of a metaphorical mountain, unable to move much thanks to fear of the unknown, fear of the “what’s next,” fear of darkness, fear of the not-good-enoughs swallowing you up whole, maybe it’s time we leave this mountain. Maybe it’s time that we start living as we proclaim: people of God who trust in God that will provide in God’s time. We could stay on the mountain, but I don’t know that we would be living in the fullness of life that God provides. Even if coming down the mountain feels like going through hell, we proclaim that God descended into hell ahead of us. There is no where we can go that God has not already gone. I am done living in fear. I am headed down the mountain. I don’t know what I am going to find, but God will go with me, with us. “Get up and do not be afraid.” 

Sermon for 3/3/19 Luke 9:28-36 (37-43) Transfiguration

Let’s be honest. There are just some scriptures that we as preachers don’t know what to do with. I think I mentioned something similar last week. And when it comes to our own faith and the scriptures that sustain us, I highly doubt that most of us would reflect back and say that it is this reading today, often referred to as the transfiguration, that sustains and supports our life as Christians. When people ask us “why do you believe in Jesus?” I don’t think we quote this scripture from Luke. (Side note though: if you haven’t thought about why you believe in Jesus, perhaps that might be a good Lenten discipline for you to take on. Think about and pray for 40 days about why you believe in Jesus). Just in case you think you’re alone with not quoting this scripture, or heck, even understanding it, rest assured you’re not alone! After all, even Peter, who was often recognized as Jesus’ most loyal disciple, didn’t understand what was going on. It even says in verse 33 that Peter suggests they stay on the mountaintop “not knowing what he (Jesus) said.”

It’s easiest to understand the Transfiguration (as if that’s possible) by remembering a few things that shape this reading. Jesus, up to this point, has been showing the disciples and us who he is, how his ministry will be, and what he expects of us as disciples if we choose to follow him. That is what epiphany is/was all about. A few weeks back even, Jesus asked Peter “but who do you say that I am?” And it is Peter (of all people) who responds that Jesus is the Messiah. But, what that means isn’t always clear to Peter (or us for that matter). Jesus knows what it means to be the messiah. It means that he will have to undergo suffering, torture, and death, only to conquer that death and rise on the third day.

So often when we think of the cross, our go to answer is that Jesus died on the cross to forgive us from our sins. While this isn’t wrong, this also isn’t the whole story. What Jesus gives us is healing, our own resurrections, and ultimately, freedom. Jesus is God’s love letter to the world. Jesus is the only one who comes again and again, without limitations, without exceptions, and without expectations, to rescue God’s people (and that includes us). Peter has said, outright, what and who Jesus is. Yet it is Peter who wants to keep him from doing it. And Jesus continues to show who he is and what he does (despite Peter, despite all of us) by once again showing his healing powers in this strange story from versus 37-43.

Here is what is so wonderful about God (as if you needed more convincing): God, through a transfigured Jesus Christ, comes to us, is present with us here and now, in ways we may understand (or not), despite the fact that we, like the disciples, may not be fully awake to the promises of God. So many of the ways we experience Jesus would never happen if Jesus would have stayed on that mountain top like Peter suggested. In the transfiguration, Jesus literally transforms. He was glowing (literally) and was surrounded by Moses and Elijah. He also transforms from the Jesus we’ve gotten to know to the Jesus who will turn his face towards Jerusalem and ultimately, towards his death.

But the disciples weren’t fully awake. It’s easy for us to miss the ways that Jesus transforms in front of us as well as transforms us. It’s easy for us to miss the ways that God, through Jesus Christ is present and continues to be present in transforming, transfiguring ways to us and for us. Here are some examples (even some we may take for granted). When we gather each and every week, Jesus is here and transforming this community. When we gather around the table and the font, Jesus is transforming us. When we gather after worship for coffee and sit around tables, yes, Jesus is transforming us there too. Just because it doesn’t take place within our worship space doesn’t mean that Jesus isn’t still there, working and transforming us. When we pray for one another, that’s transforming. When the ladies gather to make blankets and assemble kits, that’s transforming. When Diane gathers supplies, packs up the backpacks, and Teri picks them up, that’s transforming. The time, patience, and (sometimes) literal man hours that went into the basement project, the new bathroom, and soon the new carpet in the narthex is transforming. I hope I don’t have to tell you how transforming the second Tuesday of the month is around here. That’s when Rich and Nancy open their hearts and the food pantry and literally change lives through Jesus Christ.

Even in our weariness, God is transforming us and this place. Maybe despite our weariness, even. And yes, my beloveds, even when our sin gets the best of us, Jesus is transforming us and transforming the entire body of Christ. For generations, God, through Jesus Christ has come over and over to heal us, rescue us, feed us, teach us, and love us. That love is what constantly ushers us through our own transfiguration, our own transformation from death by sin to a life fully lived in the mercy, love, and forgiveness in and of Christ. Perhaps this message isn’t sinking in quite the way I want it to.

We serve a God that is a God of new life. Alleluia? Alleluia! We serve a God that is a God of second chances. Alleluia? Alleluia! We serve a God that has the power to overcome and defeat death. Alleluia? Alleluia! And that new life, those second chances, that power that overcomes death, it all happens right here. In this place. At little Elvira Zion Lutheran Church at 2207 380th Avenue in Clinton, Iowa. It happens here. Alleluia? Alleluia! Every church in the nation, heck, even in the world, should be called Transfiguration Lutheran Church (or whatever denomination). Because if we don’t believe that God is transforming us every single Sunday and every single day, how will we ever believe that God has the power to transform the entire world and does it? I hope you leave this place today different than when you arrived. You have been transformed. You have been fed by fellowship, singing, readings, hopefully this preaching, soon the meal, and on and on. You are a transfigured person. You are loved by a God that cannot be restrained, even by death. You are showered, coated, bathed in mercy and grace by a God that will consistently seek you out, even in, and especially in, those moments when you are weary. Soon enough, we will look to the cross, and there will hang the messiah. Hanging and killed for the sins of the world and to guarantee our freedom. But, we know that’s not the end of the story. Even God has the ability to transform death in a tomb to emptiness and good news. If that’s not good news, I don’t know what is. Alleluia! Christ is risen! (Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!)

Sermon for 2/11/18 Mark 9:2-9 Transfiguration

In my experience, I don’t know that I have found a human emotion that more people try to avoid or that more people dislike as much as fear. I don’t know what it is about fear. Fear actually keeps us safe. But, I think we often run from fear because if people see us afraid, they might then see us as weak. And I also find that fear and pain go hand in hand. Fear and pain are two things that I find people want to avoid. And we often go through several hoops in order to avoid pain and fear. Society tells us that we need to be happy, successful, thin, rich, and on and on. In order to be what society tells us we need to be, we often run from pain and from fear. We look to mask whatever is imperfect with us in order to highlight the “believed” perfect and show that to the world.

Author Glennon Doyle Melton talks about living with fear and living with pain. She says that we often are looking for the easy button of life. Do you all remember the Staples commercial where they push that big red button and say “that was easy!” And for us, she says, we look for the easy button in order to escape or avoid fear or pain. And the easy button can be anything: food, booze, drugs, sex, the internet, gossip, and on and on. But, she proposes that instead of pushing our easy buttons that we need to be better at sitting in our pain and sitting with our fears. We try and outrun it all, but instead, we need to take up residence in pain and fear and see what they have to teach us.

And I mention this as Peter expresses a common human emotion of fear. And instead of expressing his fear (scripture says “they were terrified”) he proposes to Jesus that they just need to stay on that mountain. Peter even says let’s not only stay here, let’s live here. On this mountaintop. He was afraid and didn’t know what else to say. Instead of facing his fear, Peter wants an easy button. And the easy button, so to speak, comes in the form of God and God’s declaration. God says “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” What? That’s an easy button? Yes. Follow me here.

Fear is part of our lives. Pain is part of our lives. We cannot avoid it. We may try. But there is no human made “easy button.” The only easy button in our lives is the cross. And in order to fully experience the cross we must fully experience fear and pain. On this day, Transfiguration, my proposal beloveds, is that we allow ourselves to be transformed and transfigured by pain and fear. What do pain and fear have to teach us? Jesus wasn’t one to run from pain and fear. He could have stayed on the top of that mountain. But instead, he came down the mountain into a valley where he would be met, eventually, but the people who would arrest and crucify him.

And I know what you may be thinking “of course Jesus didn’t run from pain and fear….he’s Jesus.” Right. I get it. But part of our call to be disciples as I’ve been talking about week after week is to not only point to Jesus but follow him as well. It’s easy for us to talk about Jesus. It might even be easy to point to Jesus and the ways that he moves and acts throughout this world. But to literally follow Jesus is scary. Our fear takes hold and gets the best of us and then we go looking for those man-made easy buttons.

Jesus goes to places we don’t like to even think about going. Jesus goes to disease infested, war torn, s-hole countries (as President Trump would say) that we’d rather not think exist. But he goes there because the promise that God has made to all of humanity is that we will not be abandoned by God. And so God sends us Jesus. If Jesus descended into hell, you can bet that going places that other people would rather forget probably seems like a cakewalk. And I’m not proposing that we need to all pack our bags and go on a mission trip. I mean that following Jesus is something that can start small. Anytime you may find yourself thinking or expressing the feeling of “I can’t go there” or “I can’t talk to them because it would just break my heart” then that is exactly where you need to be. Because that is exactly where Jesus is. We may want to avoid pain and fear but that is exactly where Christ normally hangs out.

When God says “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” God is telling us that EVERYTHING that Jesus has told us and will tell us about his life, death, and resurrection is true. And if that is true, my beloveds, then the pain and fear we may feel not only is real, but we’re not alone. And the pain and fear we go through will vanish in death thanks to God’s saving action on the cross. Beautiful Miss Shelby is going to get baptized today. And in baptism we never promise a life without pain and fear. Of course, we don’t want that for her. But it will happen. But in baptism we are promised a life where Jesus is going to be with us every single step of the way. No matter what.

I hope that Shelby will learn and I pray that all of us can learn that instead of reaching for the “easy button,” instead of being tempted to do whatever it is we need to do to escape pain and fear, that we instead remember that in our pain and in our fear is where Christ tends to be. In our pain and in our fear is usually where we learn the most. In our pain and in our fear is where we find out who we are and whose we are. We too often are like Peter: desiring to be comfortable, set up shop, and avoid not only pain and fear, but those dark valleys. But if we somehow are able to avoid those, are we really living the life that God intended for us? We don’t go searching out fear and pain, but it is out there.

For some reason, we may also think that in order to be people of God that coming to church means coming “cleaned up.” When we come to God’s house we certainly cannot be filled with pain and fear. People don’t like to see that. We must come neat, put together, and with the appearance that all is fine and good. But if we believe that Christ truly is present in this place, and I really hope we believe that, then why would we not come as we are even if that means coming full of pain and fear? If Christ is going to meet us here, Christ will meet us in our pain and in our fear even if no one else does. Many of us work really hard to present masks of ourselves to the world, pretending to be perfect. But I am sure that Christ would prefer us to be present over perfect. Christ would prefer us to be flawed over fake.

Shelby’s transfiguration starts today. She will be transfigured into a child of God. And for you, my dearests, be reminded that your transfiguration started long ago at these waters as well. God met you here and continues to walk with you. It is okay to fear. It is okay to have pain. Our God is a God who suffered on a cross. There’s no pain that compares to that. That suffering erases ours. If you’re looking for an easy button, you’ll find it in the cross.

Sermon for 2/7/16 Luke 9:28-36 [37-43] Transfiguration

I like listening to a comedian named Louis CK. He’s fairly smart and doesn’t always resort to using crude language to make a point. He does a short bit on our use of language and that we waste all the good important words on really unimportant things. His rant goes on to talk about how annoyed he is that someone used the word “amazing” to describe a basket of chicken wings. “What will you say when your child is born?” he wonders “You’ve already wasted the word ‘amazing’ on a basket of wings.” And it’s true. He says the same thing about the word “genius” and that it used to be in order to be called a “genius” you had to either think something no one has ever thought before or invent a number or something. But now, an extra cup holder in a car has been called “genius.” All of this got me to thinking if we are ever amazed anymore.

This, of course, got me to thinking about this week’s Gospel. We hear that after Jesus cast out the demons from a very sick child the disciples were astounded. Astounded! When was the last time you were astounded? And why in the world were the disciples astounded? They had seen Jesus do things like this before. This was Jesus’ MO, after all. He had healed lots of people before this particular person. For the disciples, it should be old hat to watch Jesus heal people. But no. Instead, they are astounded. This tells me one of 2 things: either they never grew tired of watching Jesus heal people and they were constantly astounded or they really hadn’t been paying attention all of those other times and so to see Jesus do this really was astounding. But I get the feeling that the disciples really just hadn’t been paying attention because right after this, they go on to argue about who is the greatest.

And sadly, I can’t point my finger at the disciples without also indicating myself. I am just as guilty as the disciples when it comes to be amazed or astounded by God. I take it for granted that God is acting in my life but at the same time, I fail to look for and recognize when and how God is working in my life and in the world around me. After Jesus is transfigured and after God had spoken, Jesus was found alone. Christ alone. And that thought also convicted me because if Christ alone was at the center of my life, perhaps I would be better at paying attention.

There are a lot of things fighting for our attention these days. Some of them are great (like family or friends) and some aren’t so great (like video games, sports, or even my beloved books). And I am just as guilty as breaking the first commandment as anyone. I replace Christ alone with so many other things, including myself. I make myself into my own God. When we are willing to surrender to Christ alone, many things can happen. We might be judged (we might be seen as one of those “crazy Christians” or “Bible thumpers”). When we surrender to Christ alone, we make ourselves vulnerable. And making ourselves vulnerable means giving up control and power and freedom. Because when we claim that it is Christ alone who is the center of our lives, it means that we give all of our trust to him. And when we give up power, fear has the opportunity to set in. At the same time, fear leads to hope. Fear can cripple us, but being astounded can drive us to evangelism.

When Christ is not at the center of our lives, we can easily get distracted and miss the amazing things that God is up to in our lives. I think a lot of times when we want proof of God working in our lives, we desire big, huge, really bright neon signs. But, God doesn’t always work like that. Sometimes God works through quiet whispers. We’re so busy looking at the false gods at the center of our lives or we’re distracted waiting for a “really big sign” that we miss it. How much bigger of a sign do we need than the voice of God from heaven declaring that this person really is the son of God?

The other thing that happens when Christ alone is the center of our lives, we are forced to come face to face with our own sin. This, of course, leads once again to vulnerability and vulnerability leads to a loss of power. It’s kind of a vicious cycle. But at the same time, sometimes being vulnerable leaves us with nothing but freedom. If we know we are freed in Christ, the time it takes to hide from our sin is no longer. When we come face to face with our own sin we admit that we need forgiveness, we desire forgiveness and once again, that forgiveness leads to freedom. And in that freedom we are empowered to serve our friends and neighbors in the name of Christ.

See, we get astounded by things because we haven’t been paying attention. Much like the disciples, who wouldn’t have been that astounded had they been paying attention. We’re too busy being astounded by simple small things (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing) that when we actually stop to pay attention to what Christ is doing in our lives we usually wind up being, well, astounded.

As we draw closer to Lent, what is it in your life that you have placed in the center? What is the most important thing in your life? What is at the center of your life? And if it’s Christ then that’s great. But, does your faith come in second or third, maybe even tenth place? Here are some of the things I find astounding: Sunday mornings are no longer sacred. I am in a battle against televised sports, club sports, school sports, school activities, lost sleep, and work. I often tell people that I need to be in life-giving relationships. There is no relationship more life giving than the one you have with Christ. It starts at baptism and doesn’t end, not even in death.

When we are marked with those ashes on Wednesday, we will hear the words “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” That is astounding! The reminder of our mortality is humbling. We are dust. We’re not our friends, our bank account, our body, our minds, our abilities, not even our families. We are dust. And out of the dust, God forms us. We are formed alone by God alone to be in service for Christ alone. As we prepare for the next 40 days that will ultimately lead us to the cross, we should be prepared to be astounded. Start looking for Christ in your lives in the small ways and the large ways. Resist the urge to put anything else at the center of your life other than Christ. Luther believed firmly in 3 things: sola scripture,  sola fidelis, and sola Christus. Scripture alone, faith alone, and Christ alone. Nothing else is life giving.