Coming Down Together
A Sermon Preached by: the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Winnette
February 19, 2012
On Transfiguration Sunday we step a difficult pivot. Once upon a time, drawn from dank and desperate valleys, we looked up and our eyes glimpsed glory in the skies. The stars and angels raptured with the brightness of Jesus’ infancy. We climbed up from the dark places with the child. The air grew delightfully thin as he was baptized, heavens torn asunder, dove flying down, God praising the beloved Son. Delightfully dazed we climbed. On the ascent the disciples gathered, people gathered, parables were taught, storms calmed, thousands fed, water walked. We climbed higher, emotions rising, spirits buoying. Together we witnessed soothing, healing stories – a woman’s touch, new hearing, new seeing, new freedom from despair, new inclusions, freshling life together. We merrily climbed. The congregation reached the brightening summit, and the penultimate epiphany hearing again: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
A glorious moment. We paused, a deep, centering breath and then a mourning sigh. There was nowhere left to go but down. God created this world to be lived in lofty and low. On Transfiguration Sunday we step a difficult pivot descending into Lent, walking slowly back to the desert valleys, to Passion. Yet, even as we cast our eyes down, there is Good News. Friends, we started the ascent alone. Praise God, we come down together.
There is a Vietnamese folk story about the afterlife. It is really about life together. It goes like this. After we die we are transported to a beautiful room with a gigantic table. It’s filled with abundances of beautiful fruits and foods. We sit at table and we’re very hungry. There is one condition. We cannot eat with our fingers. There is no cutlery provided, only chopsticks. And the chopsticks are 3 feet long.
It easily becomes a hell of starvation and frustration if we try to serve ourselves with the chopsticks. We cannot get the food to our mouths. It quickly becomes a heaven of comfort and satisfaction as we feed each other. We pick up the long chopsticks and nurture our neighbors. The story resonates with Jesus feeding thousands, first breaking bread and then sharing it with the disciples, who then shared it with the crowd, who then shared it across all of the valleys of human separation.
Jesus asked Peter, James and John to climb a high mountain. Peaks were considered thin places, spaces for divine encounter. Places to receive stars, hear clouds, and gain divine perspectives. Winded and near the top, the disciples pull out a picnic brunch. Jesus steps to the summit’s top and is transfigured before them. His clothes become whiter than any bleach could whiten. Now, I don’t imagine this means that Jesus was transformed from a regular Jesus into a super Jesus. Jesus doesn’t change, the disciples’ perception changes. Their blinders are removed, the cataracts of difficult-living detached. And for a moment they see the brilliance of God’s love within Jesus. They see God’s community. They see Trinity. They see life together with God.
The moment echoes Moses’ brilliant encounter of God on Mount Sinai. But there are distinct differences. Moses went up the mountain alone. This time there is community. Jesus invites his friends up the mountain. Moses could not bear the holy, brilliance of God. But the disciples could be with Jesus; they could be with God. It was a moment of unity and Trinity – God was there, the Beloved One was there and the Spirit bound them all together. And then Moses and Elijah appeared. It was a divine huddle. The congregation was assembled: God, Jesus, Moses, Elijah, Peter, James, and John all bound by the Spirit. God spoke, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
Can you hear me? Can you hear me now? Can you hear me now? Do you remember the Verizon commercials? Remember the bespectacled guy with the crowd behind him. In the commercial the crowd represents all the working people who are involved in connecting Verizon calls. The advertisement touches good theology; by God we are all connected; all our contributions matter. The advertisement touches wisdom; life is better lived together.
This time, Moses and God were not separated by God’s fiery intensity and humanity doesn’t descend alone. There is a paradigm shift in relatedness and communication with God. Likethe Verizon commercials’ crowd we have the congregation of the faithful up on the mountain working together to hear God. The three disciples are the fresh crowd of followers; Moses represents the organizing followers of Torah; and Elijah represents the justice-seeking Prophets. It’s a fellowship penthouse party.
And God might have said, “Can you hear me? Can you hear me now? Can you hear me now that you have the history of faith embodied in Moses and Elijah with you, while you have the brilliant love of Christ before you? This is my beloved, listen to him! When you listen to him, you hear me too for I am incarnate within him and in by your community.” Transfiguration foreshadows the Priesthood of believers, the Body of Christ, the Church. Rather than the old model where we think very few, very special people can hear God, we hear in community. Rather than the old model where we believe God only speaks in very special, very scarce places we hear wherever we have community.
Today’s disciples go up together and come down together. We live life together with God in low and lofty places. So whether we ascend new adventures in life: new missions, building campaigns, births, baptisms, marriages, new members, praise worship, table feasting and children teaching or we pivot and descend into life’s difficulties: deaths, illnesses, budget shortfalls, idealism, prophetic challenges, we do it together.
Whether we are nurturing each other during memorial service receptions or feasting after baptism celebrations, we do it together. Whether we are delighting in Valentine Day luncheons or helping a beloved walk with an IV pole, we do it together. Whether we enjoy Medieval Banquets or suffer together a Maundy Thursday Communion, we do it together.
Canadian, Native-American Storyteller, Richard Wagamese shares about gathering community. “Happens like this. Feast gets talked up. Everyone hears about it, starts gettin’ somethin’ ready. Hunters hunt, bring fresh meat, people go fishin’, bake bannock, everywhere there’s people gettin’ ready. That’s the first sly part. Gettin’ ready. Everyone wants to make up their best. Best moose stew, best bannock, best deer roast. Right away they’re thinkin’ of somethin’ outside themselves. Thinkin’ of the people. That’s what our way’s all about. Thinkin’ of the people. Right away that simple ceremony’s workin’ on their thinkin’.
Then the gatherin’ happens. People come together. Seeing each other headin’ together reminds ‘em of how important they are to each other. Maybe how much they miss someone they ain’t talked with for a long time. Gets that feelin’ movin’ inside ‘em.”
They went up alone and came down together. God is Trinity – three in one and one in three, a community within God’s self. On the Transfiguration Summit, humanity gathered and the fiery division between God and humanity was drawn into the Trinity. God, Child, and Spirit danced a new beat, life freshling together. So as we descend from the delighting summit of Jesus’ birth, teachings, and miracles, we remember life together. And as we descend into the travail of Lent, we remember life together. We are not alone. And we won’t stay in winter valleys. Praise God, spring’s Easter climb is coming round the mountain.