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Nebulous Visibility

Transfiguration Sunday, Common Lectionary Year A

Matthew 17:1-9, (Exodus 24:15-17)

©2020 Rev. Dr. Elisabeth R. Jones

Scripture audio
Sermon audio

Scripture text

Now, let’s re-tell again this Gospel,
as Matthew tells it,
all misty and mysterious, and bright, and dazzling,
like a beautiful watercolour painting,
and yet also very human and ordinary.

Shall I tell it to you?
A story a story…..

Jesus and his disciples were in Galilee.
Jesus had been teaching, and healing,
telling people about the Dream of God.
Lots of folk loved this Dream, and they wanted
to be part of it. Others were not so sure,
and sometimes they ended up arguing with Jesus.
So Jesus kept telling his closest followers,
“You see, sometimes living God’s Dream can be hard.
Don’t expect it to be easy.”
A few days later, Jesus wanted them to see
that though it’s hard, it’s also filled with wonder,
so he took Peter and James and John with him
to climb one of the high mountains,
one which seemed to touch the clouds.
They climbed, and climbed through the morning,
until they reached the top.
There, where the light is bright, and the air is thin,
and breath is sharp, and everything seems crisp and clean,
Jesus became bright, like the sun.
His face shone, his brown homespun cloak
became whiter than snow.
He was suddenly transfigured,
the ordinary become beautiful!

The disciples were amazed.
And even more amazed when, joining Jesus
were…. Moses… and Elijah….
two prophets who had been dead for centuries!
There they were, the three of them, together,
talking like friends!

Peter, babbly bumbly Peter,
he started to jabber….
Wow! Jesus! Rabbi! Wow!
This is so cool! Can we…
we gotta stay here!
Oh the others should see this!
Can we make a camp up here,
for the three of you! This is like heaven!

And right on cue… there was that voice again…
the one who had spoken when Jesus came up
out of the water of his baptism in the Jordan…
the voice from within the cloud….
“This is my Son!
I am soo proud of all that he is!
Listen to him!”

Even Peter was silent!
They knew, knew in their bones,
in this thin place,
that this ordinary mountain, this ordinary man
even they, were touched by heaven.
Were they frightened? Or were they awed?
Amazed? All of that and more,
words are not enough!

But Jesus, always Jesus,
he came back to them, where they huddled,
and he reached out and touched them,
with a hand, his eye, a smile,
“Come on, don’t be afraid when heaven comes close!”

And they looked around, and all was ordinary again,
no prophets, no bright lights, no voices in the clouds.
He told them.
“Keep this to yourself, for now.
They won’t know what you’re talking about until Easter happens.”
He was right.

But for them, it was never the same again.
Once you have witnessed transfiguration,
once you notice the glory of God,
once you have seen wonder and beauty all around,
you are never the same.

This, O best beloveds, is the Gospel of Jesus Christ!
Thanks be to God!

Sermon text

It must be ten years now since I read, in Desmond Tutu’s beautiful, and inspiring book “God Has a Dream,” his take on this long, highfalutin word “Transfiguration.” He tells of sitting in a wintered garden, all brown and hard, in the height of the anti-apartheid discussions with the president of South Africa, PW Botha, talks that seemed to be stuck in the winter and mud of entrenched power. He knew that in a matter of weeks, that garden would be filled with blossom, green grass, birdsong. And in that moment, he knew that God’s capacity, desire, and evident repeated action to transform not only the ordinary, but the ugly (war, hatred, racism, bigotry, apartheid) “into their glorious opposites.” It was a moment of transfiguring clarity that captured his fear, replacing it with invincible hope for an unknown future.

I’ve never seen this word the same since, and over the years here, we’ve taken time on this Sunday to experience this transfiguration of the ordinary in the context of our worship;
we’ve crushed grapes and baked bread; three years ago we filled balloon/bubbles and made this * out of the memories of the ways in which we have been transfigured by community connection.

So, highfalutin it may be, but this day, this feast, this eternal capacity for God to transfigure the ordinary and even the ugly into something of beauty and grace is a perfect accompaniment to our Annual Meeting Sunday, when we remember and reflect, and draw wisdom from the last year in the life of Cedar Park United.

The Annual Report is entitled “Gifts of the Year of the Unexpected.” And it was certainly that! I won’t belabour the point; many of you have experienced the lows as well as the highs of 2019, but I am going to quote our Chair of the Board here (from her message), because “giftedness” is certainly the overriding outcome of the year.
“I remain in a perpetual state of something like awe, but have come to expect gifts….. so, when thrown a curveball, the dedicated and resourceful staff, ministry teams, congregation and community are naturally inspired to transform (can I say transfigure?) that into an opportunity.
A flooded basement yields a working prototype in finding new ways to share and reconfigure our space in real-time; the unexpected and heart-stopping news of a cancer diagnosis (mine) brings an outpouring of care and community that reaches far beyond our walls, and our regular (yet extraordinary) programming continues to welcome and grow…CPU is truly blessed.”

God has indeed taken the ugliness of cancer and flood,
and worked her miracle of transfiguration – of us as a community of faith, and God has done so in ways far beyond anything we could have imagined. It is as if God has reached through the storm clouds with a voice we can just about hear,
“Best beloveds! I believe in you. You’ve got this,
Just be who you are called to be.
Care, love, be generous, be brave, courageous,
be prepared to be amazed at what you can accomplish!”

Now, about those clouds in the text;
this nebulous feature that both obscures and reveals.
You know they do that? Clouds? (images), in real life, and in the life of faith. Moses on the Mountain, (remember that story in Exodus, and well known by Matthew), encountered God’s mysterious glory as a great cloud enveloped the mountain. From that cloud, God’s voice is heard, and God’s Way, God’s Torah, God’s Dream is made a bit clearer. But not crystal clear, cloudy clear… nebulously visible.

This is a recurrent lesson your Minister needs to learn. I like to know the route, the itinerary, in life and in ministry. I plot out worship months in advance, I spend time quarterly and annually doing strategic and long-range planning. It makes me feel (erroneously) in control.
But I’m not.
This life of faith with God never pans out like that. If I, in my hubris, had thought that by this ACM our Vision 2020 would be clear as….well, 20-20 vision,…..God laughs!
2019, with its mountaintop highs and its death-dark- valley lows, and above all, its “unknowables”,was enough to bring me, us, back to mystery, to transfiguration, to knee-bending fear right there alongside Peter, James, John, and to giddy amazement at the miracles .

If this text is our guide, and it always is, once we let the Spirit lift these ancient words off the page and into our lives, is our reminder that nebulous visibility is all we ever get with God. Just enough to take the next step, but never enough to think we can do it alone, without God, and without each other. As people of God, we never get the map, and that’s a good thing! It would most likely scare us, because it will, of necessity, take us through troubles uncountable and it will lead us, as disciples of a crucified Christ, to the cross, before it takes us to Easter.

Nebulous visibility then is a strange, God-given gift, out of which one certainty emerges; it’s right there in the text; when Peter, James, John, whenever all God’s named children find themselves knee-bent in fear of the utterly holy, or of the utterly human present or the future, Jesus emerges from the cloud of unknowing, and touches them, us, and says,
“Don’t be afraid.”
And he steps in, right beside us, God’s love in flesh and bone, and he walks every step of the road with us.

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