The Sound of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-9)

TransfigI.

Have you attended a movie, concert, or play in which the person next to you talks the whole time?

You know, you’re sitting there, enjoying the show; and the show or concert comes to a place of awesome suspense or beauty or wonder, and then there it is: A voice of someone who ruins the moment.

I know someone who does this during movies.  I’ve vowed never to watch a movie with her again.  I like my movie-watching in total silence, even if it is the most predictable, corny movie there is.

When she watches a movie, its always, “Oh, oh, don’t go in that room” or “Oh, he’s the one who’s the culprit.”  Or one of my favorites, as we sit half-way through the show, “So that’s how the movie is going to end…”

There are just some people who need to talk during those awkward moments.  They just have to say something.

I found out early on in high school that having to say something just to say something is a fast way to ruin a date too.

I’m a talker just in case you didn’t know, and when I was learning how to court the ladies, I didn’t realize that girls like mysterious men.  The less they know about you, the better.

So, as each date I went on, I found that I was ruining the whole thing by talking.  A lot.  At the end of the day, after I realized I had botched things, I would scold myself, “Joe—you just have to shut up.  Just be quiet!”

I have a wife who says that to me now, so I’m grateful.  … I must not have talked much before we got married.

 I.

In today’s scripture lesson, we find ourselves back in the gospel of Matthew and back on another mountain.  Last month, we spent some time on a mountain listening to Jesus’ sermon and gleaning from lessons related to both the spiritual practices and the social practices that will help us be the Good News in the world today.

This time, we are not listening to one of Jesus’ lessons, but getting a fly-on-the-wall view of a magnificent and moving, climactic, vision that Jesus, James, John, and Peter shared together.

It is the Transfiguration; and, today is appropriately called, “Transfiguration Sunday.”  It’s the day that marks the final day of the season of Epiphany and the foreshadowing of the season of Lent.  This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, and we’ll find ourselves with Jesus not on a mountain, but in the wilderness valley of testing and trails.

Matthew must have something for mountains because they appear throughout his Gospel.  We mentioned before that this is probably intentional:  It was on a mountain where Moses received the Law; it was where Elijah heard God and challenged the prophets of Baal.   Zion itself sits upon a mountain, which is why we always sing that we are “marching up to Zion.”

Mountains mean something to Matthew, and I think they mean something to us too.  We have mountain-top experiences, those moments when we have a revelation or epiphany and reach some peak of awe in our spiritual life.

III.

So here we are, taking a long walk with Jesus back up a mountain, and we get a bit tired at the top and wonder why he led us here in the first place.  Scripture tells us that we are alone here.  There are no crowds to heal.  There are no religious officials with whom we might debate.

Then something brilliant and amazing and awe-inspiring happens!  There is a great light, and Jesus is changing right before our eyes into the most beautiful, heavenly being we’ve ever seen!  Glory is coming upon us, and it takes our breath away, it is so bright—as bright as the sun—and we have to shield our eyes.

As we try to see through the sun-spots, try to take in  this moment before it goes away, we make out two figures:  One looks like Charlton Heston and the other one looks like someone we can only guess is Elijah.  They are having a conversation with Jesus as if they are in a library, hushed and reverent, but we can only watch speechless and with hearts throbbing: Glory, glory in the highest!  And our hearts soar!

We enjoy the moment and drink it in like fresh water, and then the moment is broken, not by amazing song of angels or by a thunderous voice from heaven, or by a transformative, cataclysmic speech by Jesus or Moses or Elijah, but broken by Peter. Anxious Peter!

“Lord,” Peter says, “This is so good, so very good.  Let’s build something.  Let’s capture this Kodak moment with altars so that we can live in this moment forever.  …Whatdaya’ say?”

I imagine that as soon as Peter opened his mouth, all of them–James, John, Jesus, and even Charlton Heston and Elijah—all turned to Peter with looks of confusion on their faces.  Perhaps James—the quiet one—just shook his head in disbelief.  The light that once shone like the sun became a little duller.

“Peter, you’re about to ruin the moment, Dude.”

Then God makes an entrance.  The light brightens again to cosmic, blinding proportions, and another voice overtakes Peter’s and says in no uncertain terms, “This is my Son, my Beloved.  Listen to him!”

Listen to Jesus!  Peter just came into the presence of greatness:  A dazzling and brilliant Prince of Peace, Jesus, Moses, and Elijah—heroes of the faith, and God reminds him and his friends: “Don’t say another word—Listen!”

IV.

I am reminded of stories of people who meet celebrities.  When people meet them on the street or at some local restaurant, they—the fans—start acting like children and talk and talk and talk, “Oh, Mr. So-and-So, I’m you’re biggest fan, can you sign my napkin?  Somebody get me a Sharpie… grab a Sharpie!”

My sister, the journalist, called me one day after she did a press junket for the movie, The Italian Job.  Movie execs put her and a half-dozen other reporters in a room with some actors from the movie to do a round-table interview.

One of those actors was Mark Wahlberg.  My sister got to sit right next to him.

Now, you have to know something about my sister.  Ever since Mark Wahlberg was singing hip hop with “Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch”, my sister had been infatuated with both him and his brother, Donnie, also a singer.   So being next to Mark Walhberg was something akin to having a mountain-top experience.

“What did you say to him,” I asked.

“Nothing,” she told me, “I didn’t say anything.”

“You didn’t ask him any questions about the movie or anything?  You didn’t tell him that you have a Mark Walhberg action figure on your bookshelf at work?”

“Well, yeah, I asked him a few things, but I spent most of the time just looking at him: At his biceps…his shoulders…his hair….”

“Alright, enough Gina!”

My sister probably did what most of us would do in that situation, to sit speechless.  But for every person who is speechless, there is someone else who would have talked Marky Mark’s ear off just because silence becomes too awkward sometimes.

I really do think that my sister was on to something.   When we are in the presence of something great, we need to be quiet.

“Listen to my Son.”  Don’t spoil the moment.  Enjoy it.  Take in the glory.  Let Jesus do the talking for once.

V.

The truth is that there are many times when we are on a mountain with Jesus, and we don’t know what to do.  Some of us, like my sister, look in disbelief.  We breathe in that fresh, mountain air and try to listen.  We wrestle with how to let Jesus’ words sooth the soul and transform our hearts.

We know the moment may not last into tomorrow, but that’s okay.  Jesus told us to let tomorrow to take care of itself.

Then there are others of us who are uncomfortable on that mountain.  Mountains are, for them, not places of clarity and insight and awe, but of anxiety and stress.

They only remind folks that a valley is just on the other side, and that there will soon follow either a boring walk through the routine of faith, or a strenuous—and in some cases, tragedy-laden—journey through that dark valley before getting to the next mountain-top experience.

There is a saying in Haiti that when things go bad, it is as if the people are facing “Mountains upon mountains.”  That’s like saying, “When it rains it pours.”   For some people, mountains are hindrances, they represent hurdles to overcome rather than sacred spaces that enable you to see the big picture.

Some of us would rather take Jesus’ other advice, when he said that our prayers can move mountains.  That is much more comfortable than having to climb up one only to experience an awkward blinding light.

There are times when we get anxious on the mountain top and, like Peter, say the wrong things at the wrong time.  We talk too much.

We don’t let Jesus speak, and we don’t listen to those prophets of the Bible.  We fail to let the Bible speak for itself.  We want to go back to that noisy, busy-body world we settle for: the one with all of the cell phones, social networking, music, entertainment, and endless conversation that drowns out the piercing silence and glory that comes when we face God and face ourselves.

“Come on, let’s do something,” we tell Jesus when we meet him there, “I’m too uncomfortable to just sit still and simply worship you; let’s build something together to get our mind off of the things that you and I need to deal with in my life.”

And God comes again and again, dazzling us with light, surprising us with divine revelation; and He shuts up our mouths and tells us to quiet down.  God gives us permission to enjoy the moment, to not ruin the date; to “be still and know that He is God,” as Psalm 46 says.

“When you pray,” Jesus once told his disciples, “Go into your prayer closet, and shut the doors.”

I wonder if Jesus really meant, “Go into your prayer closet and shut up for a while.”  Be quiet for a moment.

“This is God’s Son.  Listen to him.”

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Sabbath happens when we reach the end of our words (and worlds)

By Joe LaGuardia

“Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8).

All that we do
Is touched with ocean, yet we remain
On the shore of what we know.
(Richard Wilbur)

pad

I.

Words are the most valuable resources we pastors have.  I agree with Walter Brueggemann who wrote that we use words to “engage in world making.”  Our words carry great power.  They dismantle, dismember, and deconstruct; they rebuild, plant, co-create, and heal.  Words breathe into being new worlds, new realities, new beginnings.  They midwife opportunities for second, third, and infinite chances.

That is what happens when we use words with our congregations and in the public square.  We write our prayers, draft manuscripts.  Some of us are so good at preaching only an outline is needed.  Words nevertheless. We interpret the Bible–more words stacked upon mere ancient words.  I am at a word processor this very moment wrapping a gift yet again; this time for you, dear reader.

But what happens when we go before God in our personal life?  What happens when we enter our interior space where time rather than words carry greater power?  How do we utter words before God, before our family?  For, in the presence of God, our words and wisdom wither into foolishness.  Our power crumbles like idols before a cross that is symbol to God’s power; weakness turned on its head for sure.

We are silenced, and it is Sabbath that shuts our mouths.  Sabbath replaces our confidence with uncertainty, it sends our cliches out to sea.  God confronts our solutions with ever deeper Mystery and the work of unwording.

The goal of Sabbath is summed up in Palm 46: “Be still and know that I am God” (v. 10).

This is difficult for pastors who make a living doing ministry and engaging in church as a career.  It’s easier to avoid Sabbath because when we enter into it, God forces us (like a stubborn musician teaching her apprentice) to play (with) the silences as well as the notes.

It is Sabbath–and unwording silence–that we fear most because in Sabbath our words lose meaning and the ability to control.  It’s where we face what T. S. Eliot calls the “undisciplined squads of emotions.”  Words fail us, and our boats bump up against the horizon like Truman Burbank’s boat did in The Truman Show.  “Silence,” opined Mark Burrows, “is the primary condition of our beginning and ending” that forces us to face our fragility and fate.

Question: So what do we do when we are confident with only one-half of our calling (to lead congregations and do contextual ministry), but constantly (and consistently) shy away from the other half of our calling–to journey into ourselves, confront Divine Mystery, be silenced, and remember who and whose we are?

Answer:  We must keep practicing it.  Only when we row that boat do we break through and go beyond the horizon that we’ve made for ourselves.  We put down our blueprints, our hammers and utility belts and give them back to God.  We have to toss the pencil that rests behind our ears or the pen that finds a warm home in our breast pocket.  We must enter into the Architect’s home instead and relearn what it means to be malleable in the hands of the Potter.

II.

There are three steps that help us confront and enter Sabbath.  The first step is to realize that the cultivation of an interior life–the life that Sabbath is all about–is a part of our calling.  Our calling to lead is not divorced from our calling to follow no more than our calling to surrender is no less important than our calling to serve.

Prayer, lectio divina, devotions, personal worship, journaling, silence, meditation, “quiet times,” and other spiritual disciplines of the church are just as important as our words.  They, too, make us who we are–and we get paid to practice them if not master at least one or two of them.

Yes, we are prophets, preachers, pastors–but ordained ministry is also about being mystic.  If we don’t practice Sabbath, we are abusing our church’s trust, deceiving the human resources department, and getting a full-day’s paycheck but only doing half the work.

The second step is to reorient our ministry to lead, preach, and pastor outward from Sabbath.  This is difficult for us Protestants who see Sabbath as the last day of the week rather than the first day of the week.  Sabbath is not an afterthought so much as it is the very center from whence God sends us.

We follow the likes of…

Brother Lawrence, who asked God to invite him into the world of ministry, joined God, and then, in turn, invited God to join him in the mundane tasks and routines of every-day living.

Henri Nouwen, who sought silence as the only real way to hear a word from God.  “The Word of God,” he wrote in The Way of the Heart, “is born out of the eternal silence of God.”  It was silence that was the pregnant mystery from which God gives our next marching order, and it is only silence that can teach us how to speak: “A word with power is a word that comes out of silence.”

St. John (of Patmos) whose ministry to the seven churches of Asia Minor erupted and founds its inspiration from a Revelation he received in a cave–a symbol of the interior life if there ever was one.

Jesus, who ministered only after meeting God in the solitude and lengthy Sabbath of carpentry, baptism and wilderness.

The Israelites, who had to learn what it meant to trust in God with nothing more than rock-tainted water and damp manna before becoming a people holy enough to settle into promised land.

The third step is to simply practice Sabbath and make time for it.  Henri Nouwen wrote that we talk and think often about God, but our hearts are far from God (he called this notion the “crisis of our prayer life”).  Eventually, we have to stop reading, talking, doing, and ministering.  We have to put everything down and push everything aside . . .and simply do Sabbath…

“Be still and know that I am God.”

To add words to that verse is to realize that there is nothing more to say, to come upon “a different kind of failure” (T. S. Eliot).

III.

Exercise 1: Sit in silence for 5 minutes.  Introduce time with music for several minutes and keep time thereafter (officially starting your 5 minutes) with an alarm clock (this keeps you from looking at your watch or a clock and lets you rest easy).

Exercise 2:  Write down your weekly schedule for each hour of each day, Sunday through Saturday.  Include routine activities and family/personal obligations.  Do you pencil in Sabbath?  If so, where?

Exercise 3: Consider these questions for reflection:

  • Where do you lack Sabbath in your weekly schedule?
  • How do you practice Sabbath?  When?
  • How does your family play a part in your Sabbath?
  • What decisions and commitments do you need to make in order to reclaim Sabbath?

Resources:

Walter Brueggemann, The Word Militant: Preaching a Decentering World (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), p. 96.

Mark Burrows, “‘Raiding the Inarticulate’: Mysticism, Poetics, and Unlanguageable,” in Minding the Spirit, ed. Elizabeth Dreyer and Mark Burrows (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2005), p. 341-361.  (All poetry cited in this article is from Burrow’s essay.)

Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart (New York: Ballantine, 1981).

Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1958).

(Author’s note: This was written for presentation at a pastor’s retreat, going on in mid-April 2013.)