Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Word That Was Preached...

...for Transfiguration Sunday, at our place:

I bring you grace and peace from God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
We pray, Lord sanctify us in your truth, for your word to us is truth. Amen.

Many centuries ago, in Greece, a guy named Plato told a story. Here’s how the story goes: Once upon a time a community of people were imprisoned in a cave. They had been imprisoned there all their lives. They were chained in such a way that all they could see was the cave wall in front of them. All they knew of the world was that cave wall…and the shadows that occasionally passed along the wall , coming from gaps in the stone above them where bits of light could enter. Shadows signaled the rising and setting of the sun; or changes in weather; or when people or animals passed by. But the prisoners in the cave didn’t know about the sun or the seasons; they didn’t know about the people or the animals who lived outside. Their only reality was their cave, and the shadows that occasionally flickered across the rocks. The cave dwellers even gave the shadows names, because these were the only “things” they understood, there in the cave, staring at the wall.

Then one day a prisoner somehow got free, somehow found the mouth of the cave…and for the first time in his life he looked out upon the world as it really is; not just the fleeting shadows of life.

What would that be like, asked Plato, to finally see what’s real. And what would it be like to go back down into that cave and let the other prisoners know – to let them know that the shadows they thought were the sum of reality were only a tiny, tiny part of a big, complex, wonderful picture.

In our Gospel lesson today Jesus takes Peter, James and John, his closest disciples, to a mountain. We don’t know which mountain, but it may have well been Mount Hebron in Caesarea Philippi, where many centuries earlier Elijah was thought to have his famous miracle smackdown with the pagan priests of Baal; a mountain important to the Jews of Jesus’ time because of its link to their past. We know that Jesus often spent time alone in quiet places where he could pray. Perhaps he would also sometimes take friends with him on retreats; or maybe this was a new privilege for his closest disciples.

But in any event, Jesus takes his friends to a quiet place on a mountain. And there, their reality changes forever. The Jesus they knew as their rabbi is changed before their eyes into a personage whose visual brilliance leaves them stunned almost speechless; who seems to be standing in a place beyond space and time, with the long-dead prophets Moses and Elijah; two of the great ancestors of their people.
For one moment, these disciples have a tiny glimpse into eternity. They have a glimpse of the One in whom and for whom and through whom and by whom all was made that is made, and in whom all things hold together; and they have a glimpse of how this One holds all of history, including their history as a people and as individuals, in his hand.

For the past few weeks, as we’ve journeyed together through the Epiphany season, we’ve heard Gospel stories that point us, glimpse by glimpse, act by act, toward a fuller picture of Jesus – a Jesus who is more than just another baby born during the census of Augustus Caesar; more than just another kid growing up in Nazareth; more than just a pious young carpenter in a place and time known for its religious enthusiasm; more than just another charismatic, compelling rabbi in an age filled with rabbis claiming to know something special about God. And now, in a blinding flash, we -- like Peter, James and John – see the reality of who Jesus is.

Why did the Transfiguration, this astounding event, happen? Why, especially, since afterward Jesus told his friends not to talk about it, at least not for awhile?
Maybe because God knows that, in our broken world, where our broken minds and hearts are so often preoccupied with the troubles and distractions of living, we need “God moments” – grace notes in our lives when, just for a second the fog lifts and the noise is stilled and we experience clarity: who God is; who we are; what it’s really all about.

A friend of mine recounted for me how, while holding his little daughter for the first time , he experienced a God moment where all his young-adult self-absorption and petty concerns fell away and he realized that this new little person was a miracle, a precious charge from God, who would need him and his wife from now on; he was filled with an overwhelming love and desire to care for and protect this child, like nothing he’d ever felt before. Another friend of mine, who had a near-death experience after a surgery, felt a profound joy and thankfulness for life afterward; that and a very strong, lasting impression that she should never take even the small pleasures of living for granted ever again.

We know that John, James and Peter were courageous witnesses of Jesus as God’s Messiah after Jesus left this earth. We also know that this made life difficult for them; that they experienced rejection and imprisonment; that James was executed by sword, and Peter was crucified upside down, and John spent his last years far from home in Ephesus, now part of Turkey – a long way from the Sea of Galilee. What kept them going through these travels and travails and persecutions? Maybe the memory of that eye-opening moment on the mountaintop with Jesus, even before his death and resurrection, provided them with a reassurance that Jesus’ news of forgiveness, freedom and purpose was real; that their faith was not in vain; and that death was not the end of their lives but just the beginning.

Of course, Jesus and his friends came down from the mountaintop, back into the world of the everyday. And we’re about to come down from the mountaintop, so to speak, as the circle of the church year turns. Beginning on Wednesday, we move into the season of Lent. Lent has been observed by the Church since about the fourth century. It’s traditionally been a time when Christians have sought to walk with Jesus in closer, more mindful ways as we remember his walk to Jerusalem, his passion and death. It’s a time when we try to get real about the destructiveness of sin in our life, and ask God for help in healing us. It’s a time when we may take on a particular spiritual discipline like devotional reading or prayer or fasting – a friend of mine calls Lent spring training for a more focused Christian life the rest of the year. Lent is also a time when, as we think of Jesus giving of himself for others – Scripture compares his life to a drink offering being poured out – we place a special focus on giving of ourselves and our resources for the benefit of others. Lent is about the down-and-dirty, nitty-gritty, boots-on-the-ground, sleeves-pulled-up experience of the Christian life.

But we can enter into this season of focused self-examination and discipline and service with the Christian hope that the shadows of our own sin, the shadow of the sorrows of this world that demand our attention , are not the whole of reality; that, thanks to God’s redeeming, reconciling love and grace that invites us into life with and in Christ, there’s a rest of the story that is bigger, and brighter, and better than we can imagine.

Now may the peace of God which passes all human understanding keep our hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus, into life everlasting. Amen.


Songbird said...

Well done!

Pastor Joelle said...

I like the way you used the Allegory of the Cave.

Gilly said...

Brilliant! helped me a lot. Thank you.

Diane said...

I haven't thought of Plato's cave allegory for a long time!]
and this is a brilliant sermon!


Joolie said...

thanks for sharing this. I love the image of Lent as Spring Training!