This Week's Sermon
Up and Down the Hill
Matthew 17:1-9, 14-21
We have two movements in the text today – up and down, up the hill and down the hill. What happens at the top is more memorable than what happens at the bottom, but the two go together. To borrow a strong image from our preacher last week, Michele Watkins Branch, we have “theophany” on top and “anthropology” down below; they go together: theophany, God appears, and anthropology, humans act.
Today we pick up Matthew’s telling of Jesus’ life at the beginning of Chapter 17, “Six days later,” but six days later than what? We need to back up before we ascend the Mount of transfiguration. This is six days after Jesus first tells the disciples that he is going to suffer at the hands of the authorities. Peter cries out, “God forbid!” And Jesus turns on him and exclaims, “Get behind me, Satan! If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their 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.” Now, six days later, Jesus heads up the hill with Peter, James, and John.
And what happens up there is amazing: as Matthew reports it, Jesus is transfigured. His face shines like the sun and his garments become dazzlingly white. Out of nowhere Moses and Elijah appear, all of the Law and the prophets represented by these two archetypal figures. And it is Peter who blurts out again, but this time in ecstasy, “This is wonderful, Jesus! Let us build three dwellings up here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah. James, John, and I can sleep in the ground. We need to make this hilltop our home.”
But before Peter can draw up the plans, God interrupts him. A cloud descends over all of them and a voice declares, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” And the disciples fall to the ground in awe. The translation says “fear,” but not in the sense of being afraid but of being awestruck. It is a theophany, the appearance of God.
Where have we heard this before – “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased”? We heard it at the baptism, the exact same words from the exact same voice. And we will hear it again in a most spectacular way not so much in words as in action at the resurrection. But, we are getting ahead of ourselves. Between this affirmation on the hilltop and the raising up of Jesus in triumph we will see Jesus suffer terribly, what he had said six days before. He must go to Jerusalem, where he will be mocked and falsely accused by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, beaten by the soldiers, and nailed to a cross to die a traitor’s death, only to rise on the third day.
And the disciples will see it with their own eyes, their messiah, their saving hero, suffer . . . not triumph, not get even with the occupying Romans, not recreate the glory of King David, but suffer. “Do not forget what you see here on the hilltop,” God says, “because when you go back down into the valley of daily human life things will happen that will make you wonder if you ever saw the light here and now. See and believe, even when it will get very dark.”
The transfiguration of Jesus stands between the baptism and the resurrection to remind us that Jesus is the Son of God and through his suffering we will find salvation. The suffering messiah.
So, a “theophany,” when God appears. I confess that I have never had an experience like Peter, James, and John, where God alters nature and speaks aloud. If any of you have had such an experience, we can talk about it over coffee at the end of the worship service. Nevertheless, I claim much humbler ways in which I have sensed God’s presence, those “thin places” in life where the divine does not seem very far away.
I told you before about standing on the shore of a frozen lake at midnight on New Year’s Eve, just looking up at the stars and welcoming the new year, when I heard booms in the distance. It was not fireworks in town; it was the ice “earthquaking” in the lake, plateaus of ice far below the surface crashing into each other and sliding over each other. The power of nature when things are working naturally.
Early in my ministry when we lived out in the country I considered the song of the meadowlark to be God’s voice. I would drive along the county road with my window down, and on most every telephone pole there would be a meadowlark that would sing when I passed by, a beautiful sound that would start low, jump up high, and them trill down the scale.
God speaks words out of a cloud to some; God has spoken out of the ice and in the song of a bird to me. To you?
Sometimes God appears to me during worship, a theophany right here in the sanctuary. Not all of the time, I admit. It could be during a prayer, or the scripture, or even during the sermon; imagine that! But most often it is during Holy Communion and watching our gathered community meet at the Lord’s Table.
And then, the music . . . last Sunday when the chancel choir sang, “My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord” at 11 a.m., I sensed that God was close at hand. I stood and cheered with all of the others; I even applauded, just a little bit. And the Gospel Choir in the afternoon . . . I asked them to sing as an encore their version of “Down by the Riverside,” one of my favorites because in the frenetic back and forth of the sections singing the signature phrase I am unsettled enough to sense that God is near. And then, Kelly, when you sang “He Touched Me,” He did me, too.
God is outside of this sacred place, too. Out on the streets, says the text. We are in the middle of the Gospel of Matthew today, but we know what Jesus says just before the Last Supper with his disciples and his entry into Jerusalem, on his way to certain death. He talks about the Final Judgment, not so much in terms of fire and brimstone but of sheep and goats. We want to be on the sheep side of this parable.
We determine our own judgment, Jesus says. How can that be? By what we do to one of the least of these. That is, when we feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the threadbare, care for the sick, and visit the prisoner, we are serving Christ. That is God present right in front of us, the homeless person on the corner. It takes some sanctified imagination to see it, but Francis of Assisi saw Jesus in the face of the leper begging for help, and it changed his life, the life of Francis, as well as of the leper.
A theophany, God comes close. And then when the five year-old girl running in a neighborhood race stops to take the hand of one of her kindergarten classmates who is crying because she does not think that she can finish the race, and after they cross the finish line together someone from the local paper asks why she did it, she says, “She is my friend.” God is close, very, very close.
Up on the top of the hill, theophany . . . but, we cannot live up there. Peter never gets to build his huts. So, down the hill we come with Jesus and the disciples into the valley of everyday life. “Anthropology,” human existence. The people press in around Jesus, begging for miracles. A father kneels before him and pleads, “Help my son who is epileptic. He falls down all of the time, and his life is in danger. Your disciples have tried to help him, but they have not been able to make a difference.”
We do not know what “epileptic” means in this case. The gospels were not written as a medical journal of accurate diagnoses but as a testimony to the power of Christ. And the expectation was that any messiah worth following could work miracles. And so, Jesus did, commanding the demon to leave the boy, and instantly he is healed.
Is not that way it often is? We have some hilltop experience, even a mountaintop experience, and immediately we are brought back down to earth by the realities of daily life. But Jesus does not complain about that. Instead, he takes his full complement of disciples aside and chastises them. “You could not cast out the demon because your faith is too little. If you had even the faith the size of a tiny mustard seed, you could move a mountain out of the way. Nothing is impossible for God to do through you if you have even a modicum of faith.”
It we limit ourselves only to those things we judge to be possible, God cannot do the impossible. If we restrict ourselves to doing only those things we know we can do, God cannot use us to make a difference in the world. It is God’s power coursing through our trust that facilitates the extraordinary. The faith on top of the hill leads to useful service down at the bottom of the hill. Theophany must result in anthropology.
So, I hear God speak through the booming of the ice, but the ice is melting. That sounds absurd to us this winter, but we are smart enough to know that we are part of an environmental balance that far out-distances what we experience right here. Our frigid winter is offset by the seventh hottest January globally in 130 years, with a run of 29 years of above average temperatures world-wide. I was not a very good Boy Scout, but I did learn that when we went camping in the forest, we needed to take out everything we brought in and leave the site cleaner than when we found it. We are not living that way down here in the valley of human existence.
There no longer are meadowlarks along the county road. They have disappeared, along with their habitat. Cultivating all the way up to the fence posts and bathing the soil with pesticides have done it.
Can God work a miracle through us, impossible as it may seem at this late date, and save our planet? Do we have enough faith to make all of life, human and otherwise, flourish?
Worship life as a congregation . . . it is not for everybody. There are more people at North Avenue beach this morning watching the mayor go jump in the lake than will be in all of the city-center churches combined. We are told that church is out of fashion, which probably is true; it always has been. When church life becomes fashionable, we all are in trouble, even those who do not participate.
Yet, God can work a miracle through us if we hold steady. There is power in our prayers, significance in our Holy Meal, truth in our songs. Studs Terkel told the story of the 93-year old man in the nursing home who marries the 26-year old woman. He is the envy of all of his buddies. But then, he divorces her. “Why?” his friend asks in disbelief. “I mean, you are 93, and she is 26.” “Because she didn’t know the songs,” he replies.
We gather to teach each other the songs of faith, the melodies, as the children assemble before the altar to play their instruments. We have miracles to accomplish right here, right now, if we have even a tiny bit of faith.
We are overwhelmed by the poverty of the city. There are more people to feed than the 200, or so, that we do for one meal a week. There is a sculpture of a homeless Christ lying on a park bench outside of an Episcopal church in a North Carolina city. Many have said that it is a gut-check that calls them to compassion. But others complain. “This is an upscale neighborhood, and it creeps me out to pass that thing every night on my way home from work. I step over people like that when I visit New York; I do not want to see it here.”
And yet, come to the Temple on a Saturday morning and watch volunteers wheel out the breakfast food on a trolley through the lobby and out the door to a car waiting at the curb to take it to Grace Place on South Dearborn, where other volunteers wait to serve it to people sitting in a warm place, having been called their proper name upon check-in perhaps for the only time all week, and you will see the impossible happening.
And then, the public discourse . . . how we have slumped in the way we talk to each other, hardly a civil word. Political speech is brutal, and the vocabulary of a market economy that reduces everything to dollars and cents, even people, is dehumanizing. The harshness of public speech down here at the bottom of the hill is destroying our common life.
But then, a child takes the hand of another child and reasons, “Why? Because she is my friend.” And the miracle, the miracle of loving one’s neighbor as one’s self, suddenly becomes doable. And when it is done, the hilltop is brought low and the valley is raised up, and life levels out. God speaks, and we serve, and for a moment, all is sacred, and our vocabulary restores “compassion,” “love,” “justice,” and “mercy” to the public square.
The rigors of the Lenten season are coming. Let us hold fast to the vision of the resplendent Christ on the hill and the responsive Jesus in the valley. Amen.
Philip L. Blackwell
The Chicago Temple
March 2, 2014