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Rooted Growing Branching

Feb 26, 2017

Order of Worship


MP3 recording of the sermon


Doug Hatlem, preaching

Dorothy Lee, a theologian working in Australia, has made a fine case that the story of the transfiguration of Jesus plays a central place in all four gospels and the New Testament generally. She further notes that this centrality of glory, human and divine, has too often been set far to the side in theology, preaching, and church life, especially in the West. And I must admit I struggled a good bit this week as I contemplated how to preach, in a Mennonite context, the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai and the glorification of Jesus on yet another mountain in Matthew. Much of Jodie and I’s week was spent up the street at Conrad Grebel for MCEC’s School for Ministers. The plenary speaker throughout was Mandy Smith, whose topics were drawn from her book The Vulnerable Pastor.

Could there be a sharper distinction – an encouragement to embrace, rather than hiding or running from our brokenness, failures, and limitations, and this picture of Jesus, the perfect human, without sin, whom we are called to follow and emulate, and who is not only morally perfect, but who also, apparently, has this magical power to physically glow like a bright star in heaven, with brighter clothing than the best fuller working with the strongest bleach could possibly brighten them?

We are at the very heart of the Gospel story. Not a week after the feeding of thousands Jesus escapes with his closest disciples Peter, James, and John, “leading them up a high mountain, by themselves.” This may be the greatest of all mountaintop or camp experiences. Here in this rarefied air, in the brightest of shine and most concealing of clouds, Jesus presents himself as he most truly is. Not in the form of plain humanity, no beauty to behold or handsomeness to regard. Not even in his inexplicable power to heal and transform, nor in his care and compassion for the least of these. Rather Jesus shows himself in his glory, his inner light, the very source of his power, wisdom, and divine mercy … unsuppressed, unmitigated, overwhelming and in fact quite terrifying. Verse 2 “And he was transfigured before them, and his face shawn like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.”

Let us not ourselves immediately come down from this great high. Rather let us move to another mountaintop, one invoked in the inclusion of Moses in this Matthew passage and linked literarily in the figure of Moses and by lectionary with the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Our passage from Exodus this morning describes this other splendorous mountain experience, though in our seven verses we get just a taste, a prologue of the story as a whole.

We begin with God’s instruction to Moses “Come up to the mountain, and wait.” This word wait is critical.

“Wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone with the law and the commandment.” So Moses sets out immediately with his assistant Joshua, instructing the elders before leaving “Wait for us here,” and he leaves Aaron and Hur in charge in case of disputes.

Up on the mountain, a cloud covers over, a cloud said to be the glory of the Lord, settling over Mount Sinai for six days before God calls to Moses out of that cloud on day seven. Wait. Climb the mountain and wait. Six days of glorious silence. And then after that first week, Moses ascends yet higher on the mountaintop, leaving Joshua behind and remaining in the presence of God for a very long 40 days and 40 nights. We can all remember what happened down below. The gold that God had commanded be stolen from the Egyptians becomes, in the hands of an impatient and far from perfect people, a Golden Calf, worship and fidelity pledged to that shaped and made of human hands rather than reserved for the Creator.

But up on the mountain, “the appearance of the the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire,” visible even to the people of Israel below.

It is in this crucible that a law was given that remains, to this day thousands upon thousands of years later, The Torah, by tradition both written and oral, the bedrock of the Jewish faith. Revisited, reinterpreted, dragged at times through mud, blood, fire, and flood, but a continuous, living water of hope and life, healing, comfort, and renewal for the people of God who trace their physical descent to Jacob, called Israel.

Moses encounters God in this giving of the Torah, not once but twice, and the second time leaves him glowing so brightly, like Jesus on the mount of configuration, that upon his return to the people “they were afraid to come near him.”

I have intentionally described the gospel text first and the Torah passage second so that we might end up here, with Moses himself shining like Jesus. With those who have falsely worshipped below afraid to come near him. There is in this most close of divine encounters testimony to unique human possibility. This might help us to see what Dorothy Lee means when she notes that the transfiguration has not played a sufficient role in the West. A central tenet of Eastern christianity, to put it succinctly, is that God in Jesus descended to humanity in order to raise humans up to divinity. This possibility of humanity raised to divinity carries with it, however, a whole range of baggage theologically in the form of idolatry and politically in the form of hierarchy and tyranny.

As Lee well argues, this transfiguration stuff is everywhere. It is in the earliest of Paul’s letters including I Thessalonians and especially I Corinthians: we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye. It plays a prominent role in Mark, the earliest of the Gospels. Likewise in Luke and Matthew, and in the Gospel of John and in the epistles thought to be written much later including Hebrews and 2 Peter.

An extremely important example of this theology of divine-human glory, in my view, can be found in II Corinthians 3 where Paul says that “ALL of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord reflected as though in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”

I promised earlier to introduce a problem with this tradition of glory, especially of transfiguration. I said this particular problem could not be so readily solved. I have been drawing on insights from a woman who is a theologian this morning.

But these are all men. Peter, James, John, Jesus, Elijah, Moses, Joshua.Where are the women? The eunuchs? Children? A gentile, even?

This is a genuine problem, and it is not simply one of token diversity. In Genesis, we image God together: he, she, them. It is not that we are without resources in scripture for dealing with this problem. At the Resurrection, women are first at the scene and first to be commissioned. At Pentecost God’s Spirit is poured out upon all flesh. And the one person in all of Scripture to see God in glory face to face and live is Hagar. These are all texts for us to encounter in our preaching and teaching this calendar year. But it must be underscored that such answers are from outside the texts for this morning. On Mount Sinai and on the Mount of Transfiguration, it is all men. All Israelite men.

It would be disingenuous of me to ignore this problem or to gloss over it with a simple answer where there are none. And so I won’t.

The question of suffering, vulnerability, and weakness is more readily addressed from resources within and around the texts themselves. And here we draw things together, for now. Mountain top experiences are extraordinarily critical in spiritual formation. But they are rare. And often arrive unexpectedly. We do get closest to these portals into divine light and beauty, goodness and truth on a day by day basis by being together with the poor and the broken, the unwell, the ugly, and those who smell badly. Jodie was asked to reflect at the beginning of MCEC’s School for Ministers on the theme song for the conference, Leonard Cohen’s Anthem. The chorus of that song runs as follows:
Ring them bells that still can ring. Forget, your perfect offering.
There is a crack, there is a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.

Yes, we as humans may be granted access to a divine and inexorable light. That access begins, always and ever, in that which is cracked, with suffering, in equal human encounter including giving and receiving with the Jesus who is the least of these. Sick, naked, imprisoned, hungry. Having no form or beauty with which to be enthralled. With that within ourselves and others that is swept aside in our mad dash for what is professional, competent, fleetingly beautiful in ways that are vigorously celebrated in our world as is.

As soon as we encounter the least glimpse of glory, we like Peter want to capture it, put it into a human dwelling, own it for ourselves. We are not accustomed like Moses to WAITING, watching, silence. It is not most of our’s habit to sit for hours next to a hospital bed, to wait all afternoon for a short prison visit, to take paths that put us crossways from the powers that be.

In one of the other Gospels, we are privy to the conversation, briefly, among Jesus, Elijah, and Moses: that Jesus himself must suffer and die. It is the same theme as the ending of the chapter immediately preceding the transfiguration in Matthew. The next two weeks kick off our Lenten theme Dying to Die, Living to Die. Jesus here instructs his disciples in what could be the main verses for that theme.

“Take up your 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.”

Exodus 24:12-18
The Lord said to Moses, ‘Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.’ So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. To the elders he had said, ‘Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.’ Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.

Matthew 17:1-9
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, ‘Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’