Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Building Monuments

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Matthew 17:1-9:

Today’s Gospel passage is known as the transfiguration, and it is read today because it is, appropriately enough, transfiguration Sunday, which is always the last Sunday before Lent begins.  Transfiguration is not a word we use a lot these days, although the Harry Potter fans amongst us probably remembering him going to transfiguration classes.  But we are probably more familiar with the Greek word used here, which is metamorphosis, which means to change, or to be changed.  Jesus is changed into something different from what he had been in his normal appearance so that the Peter, James and John come to understand him very differently than what they had before, although they still don’t get it, or at least Peter doesn’t get it.  But to illustrate that we have to take a step back in the story.

Six days before this, which is how today’s passage begins, Jesus asks the disciples who people say that he is, and they respond that some say John the Baptist, and other’s Elijah or one of the other prophets, but then Jesus says, but who do you say that I am, and it is Simon Peter who speaks first and says “You are the messiah, the son of the living God.”  This is the first pronouncement by the disciples of who Jesus is in Matthew, and Jesus responds his famous phrase that Simon is “Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.”  It should be noted that Cephas, which is the Aramaic word for rock, also had a connotation when applied to someone of meaning something like blockhead, although as a term of endearment, and that certainly applies to Peter, but then Jesus begins to teach them about what it means to be a disciple and says that “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  How often?  That’s actually a trick question, because it’s in Luke’s gospel that Jesus says daily.

Jesus then leads Peter, James and John up a high mountain, where he is transfigured before them.  We should be seeing some strong parallels here between Jesus and Moses.  When we began looking at Matthew just after Christmas I talked about Matthew’s emphasis in comparing Jesus to Moses, but making Jesus greater than Moses, thus Jesus delivers the sermon on the mount and when he gives the great commission at the very end of Matthew, where do the disciples meet Jesus?  On the top of a mountain.  But this of course is more than just Matthew as Mark and Luke also have this even taking place on a mountaintop, and any time we hear in scripture that something is taking place on a mountaintop we should begin paying close attention, because important things take place on mountains, encounters with God take place on mountaintops. And here is where the disciples come to understand who Jesus is, not just something they can proclaim, but see for themselves.

When Moses encounters God, a cloud descends upon him, and Moses’ face glows with a reflection of God’s glory which scares the people when he comes back down.  But here, the cloud doesn’t descend until after Jesus glows, and it’s not just his face, Jesus entire body glows, and he is not reflecting the glory of God, he is the glory of God.  And then Moses and Elijah appear, and we might wonder how is that Peter, James and John knew that that is who it was.  It’s not as if they could do an image search on Google to know what they looked like.  Nor did Moses and Elijah have on little tags on their chest saying “Hello, my name is…”  But, the simple fact is, Moses and Elijah were so associated with the coming of the Messiah, so that the only two people that would have made any sense to the disciples to appear with Jesus was Moses and Elijah

The last book in the Hebrew Scriptures as we as Christians have them arranged, is the prophet Malachi, and it ends with this “See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the Lord of hosts.  Remember the teaching of my servant Moses, the statutes and ordinances that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel. Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.”  And then we turn the page and we are in Matthew and hearing an account of Jesus the Messiah.  It has to be Moses and Elijah with him, not only because of their significance within Judaism, but because of their significance for the coming of the Messiah.  They are the indication that the old age has come to an end, and a new age has begun.

And while all of this is going on Peter chooses to make a puzzling statement.  Rather than saying something like, “wow, Jesus, this is amazing can you explain it to us?”  Or “Hey guys, look I was right when I said that Jesus was the Messiah,” or even “Jesus, is that Bert and Ernie standing with you?”  Instead of saying any of the normal things he might say, Peter says “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.”  Just like always, it is Peter who opens his mouth in order to insert his foot.  Although Peter has said the words that Jesus is the Messiah, he doesn’t truly understand what they mean, and the bigger problem is that Peter has an edifice complex.  In order to remember this moment, in order to try and keep this moment going, as if they are all going to stay there for a long time, Peter wants to construct a monument to these events.  But the problem is as soon as he even wants to begin construction the moment is gone.  We too often seek to memorialize moments to lock them into memory and history, just think of all of the churches throughout Jerusalem said to stand where Jesus did something.  But the problem with this is that in doing it we try and box the event in, to contain it and control it, to make it something easily understood and comprehended because it now has a visible element associated with it, something we can manage and control.

In the Lego Movie, the bad guy, Lord Business, want to use kragle (spoiler alert it’s crazy glue) to fix everything into place so that nothing ever changes.  That is the work of an edifice complex, but Legos are not meant to be permanent, they are meant to be ever changing, to be taken apart, to be rebuilt, to be shaped and formed into something else, they are not meant to be permanent, locked in one place for all time.  And the same is true with us.  Our faith life is a journey, which means it has movement, that we are moving forward, hopefully, that we are growing, we are not stuck in one place, we don’t build monuments to a moment and hope to remain there forever, because the simple fact is that we can’t.

And our edifice complexes extend not just to buildings but to ideas and theology as well, and Peter too demonstrates this for us.  Immediately after his proclamation that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus begins to teach the disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer and die and the  be resurrected on the 3rd day, and Peter takes him aside and basically says this can’t happen and really he should stop talking about it.  Why?  Because Peter can’t comprehend this idea, Jewish conceptions of the Messiah don’t match this, he has built an edifice of theology so that he can contain and control it, he can box it in and understand it, but Jesus, like usual, breaks that edifice, that monument, and rebukes Peter saying get behind me… Satan.  It is the sternest rebuke that Jesus gives to anyone, because Peter is, in Jesus’ words, a “stumbling block” because he is setting his mind not on divine things, but on human things.  Peter is stuck on edifices, he wants to build monuments.

Mountaintop experiences are great, those moments when we have touched the thin spots, and have encountered something important and meaningful, they are important, but we can’t stay there.  As much as we seek to hold onto these experiences for as long as we can, sooner or later, real life interrupts and forces us from the mountain back down into the valley.  We don’t live on the mountaintops, it is in the valleys in which we live and encounter the real world, and it is in the valleys in which we must take up our crosses and follow Christ.

The last person I served communion to last month when we received here in church was my nephew Wyatt.  I could seek to build a monument to that moment, to try and remember, to lock it away and protect it, maybe even say that I was never going to serve anyone else, but I can’t, not only because it doesn’t really serve either Wyatt or his memory, but it doesn’t help me either.  I can remember it, and will remember it, but I have to move forward in my life and in my faith journey.  We are called to the mountaintops to experience God, but we cannot remain there, and we cannot build monuments to keep everything static in its place, we can’t do it in our lives or with our ideas, and we can’t do it with our faith.  Our faith life is a journey, and while who we were a year ago is important, it is not who we are today, nor who we will be next year, because we are picking up our cross and following.  Following who?  Jesus, who is leading us forward.

We all have edifice complexes, a desire to build monuments, to stay in a moment, but Jesus says that the first step to picking up our cross is to deny ourselves, to deny our desire to build monuments, as important as they sometimes may be, and to follow, to “get up and do not be afraid,” but to follow Jesus, a journey we begin this week as we move into the season of Lent and make our way to the darkness of Holy Week and climb yet another mountain for the crucifixion, and then into the valley of the shadow of death and then the celebration of Easter morning.  So let us spend today experiencing this remarkable event, pondering the view, and remembering this moment, and then let us go down the mountain as Lent requires us to do and follow the path to the cross, a path which we all travel together, and a path which leads us eventually to the celebration of Easter.  Thanks be to God sisters and brothers for the mountaintop experiences, and the reality that it is in the valleys in which we live.  May it be so my brothers and sisters.  Amen.

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