Listen To Him

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March 03, 2019

Last Sunday after the Epiphany

We have come to the end of the season of Epiphany- but we are in the middle of the story. Peter, John and (our guy), James, find themselves in a dramatic scene atop a mountain, complete with some impressive special effects: accompanied by blinding light and smoke machine, their friend Jesus is in conversation with the giants of the faith, and they hear the voice of God telling them “to listen”.

It sounds like it might be the final scene in a great drama, but they are in fact in the middle of the story. Right in the middle of Luke’s Gospel; somewhere between Peter’s recognition that Jesus is the One who has come to set God’s people free, and Jesus’s redemptive encounter with the powers of death at the cross, they witness Jesus in conversation with Moses and Elijah.

In this extraordinary moment, the disciples are invited to see that Jesus is not simply a remarkable teacher and healer walking in their midst, in their time, but that he is in conversation with the giants of their faith from across a vast expanse of time.

What we most likely miss from our perspective (as all three of these figures lived an impossibly long time ago) is that to the disciples who witnessed this scene, Moses was the towering figure from 16 centuries before, and to the Jewish mind-the embodiment of the Torah:the Law. And Elijah -- the iconic face of all of God’s Prophets –Elijah lived 7 centuries after Moses and 9 centuries before the time that Jesus and his disciples walked the earth. This was a pantheon of spiritual giants.

This conversation matters to the disciples’ religious imagination because in this mountaintop conversation is the representation of all that was known of the revelation of God: The personification of the law and the prophets in conversation with Jesus: Love come down, and the embodiment of Wisdom of God who was speaking a powerful new word of grace into the world.

It’s there all together- in the middle of the story. There in the blazing glory that is the fullness of God  --revealed to them-revealed to us --in sleepy, blurry, uncertain glimpses. The disciples catch a glimpse, a fleeting vision, of a much deeper truth -- just as so many people of faith seem to do. As did Moses with the bush burning, or his face shining coming down from the mountain, or Mary hearing from the angel before being left to ponder these things in her heart, or the wise men who sensed that they were to go home by another way, or Simeon whose eyes had seen, or John’s followers on the  banks of river Jordan who glimpsed the truth about the one baptized, “This is my son the beloved,  with whom I am well pleased” Or the lepers, or the blind men, the woman reaching out for the hem of his robe. The woman at the well who sensed the truth about the living water, or the parents who just knew that Jesus’s touch had power to heal their child. Or the ones on the road to Emmaus who said: “Were not our hearts burning within us as he spoke to us on the road?!”

And it is still thisway with Jesus’ disciples, isn’t it? We catch fleeting glimpses of God’s glory, and we are in conversation with the giants of our faith across vast swaths of time, and we are still in the middle of the story. For God is not yet done speaking, and has much more to tell us. And like our brothers on the mountaintop, we often find our selves both fascinated and scared to death when we glimpse the fullness of God’s glory.

It seems to be the nature of the revelation of God that it comes to us in a way that is at once partial -- and yet revelatory of a magnitude and scale that can make us grateful for the veil. To paraphrase that well -worn line of Jack Nicholson’s, “The truth? “We can’t handle the truth” actually.

For as difficult as it can be to comprehend the darkness and evil present in this world, it can be even more challenging, I think, to apprehend, to take in, to be confronted by the goodness, the blazing glory that underlies all that is. And so we see in part, and in glimpses, as in a mirror dimly. Because, it would seem, that’s about all we can handle.

And when that glory does break through, we like Peter can respond by wanting to package this wild energy into manageable form – like building a booth or otherwise making the vastness of God into something with which we might safely engage.  But God shakes Peter, and shakes us, by the shoulders and points simply to the One who has come that we might know freedom. “Listen to him” says the voice from the cloud.

Far from begin relegated to some long-ago chapter, it seems that there’s any number of ways that God’s grace and glory break through in our own day, taking our breath away. And in our frail human limitedness, it seems we so often encounter- or provoke- a backlash against that newfound freedom of which Paul speaks to the church at Corinth. Paul points to the connection between the presence of God’s ongoing revelation through the Holy Spirit saying, “For the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom”[1] And when that revelation of the Divine Love bursts through, we can sometimes respond as flat-footedly as our friends on the mountaintop from this morning’s Gospel.

We live in extraordinary times - where we are witnessing liberations happening around us that we never imagined possible- at least not in our lifetimes: A Black man as the president of this country; A woman presiding bishop in our church; An African American man as our presiding bishop; a woman coming within a breath of the presidency of this country; the marriages of all people recognized by our Supreme Court; the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the sacramental life and holy orders of our Episcopal Church; And, oh by the way, the likelihood that it is an African-American woman who will become the next Mayor of Chicago--  to name but a few.

This is the liberation that lies at the heart of Luke’s Gospel. It is what Jesus is talking about in the fourth chapter where he announces that he has come to set the captives free, to bring sight to the blind – to announce that God’s reign on earth is underway. And here we find ourselves in the middle of the story – in the middle of God’s story.  And like the disciples who cringed and fell back, or tried to tame the moment, our world has responded to this in-breaking of the God’s Kingdom in ways that put our human limitedness, and fear, on full display.

Did it make our eyes hurt to see God breaking through with the dignity and full personhood of a black man as our president, so much so that some among us felt the need to make our eyes more comfortable by casting again the toxic shadow of white nationalism?

Did it make our eyes hurt to see the glory of God shining through the lives of women fully alive to their God-given giftedness as full partners and participants in human authority, that some of us felt the need to restore the old order, to “lock her back up”, as it were?

And has the blinding light of liberating love that has come out from the shadows– the fully integrated lives of our LGBTQ Christians – has that inclusion been so startling as to cause some of us to long for the soothing dimness of a conservative retrenchment-  one that asks a portion of our Christian body to kindly step back into the coolness of a closet that protects those on the other side of the door from the uncomfortably blinding light of God’s liberating love shining through those who are living lives, shaped by a love for Jesus, brimming with dignity and joy and proclaiming the surprising, breathtaking, disorienting fact that God loves what God has made?

I repeat: it seems that all too often, we poor disciples of Jesus simply can’t handle the truth. Not when it’s this unspeakably good. God is up to some outrageous acts of liberation in our midst. And through God’s kingdom is bringing all things and all people to fullness of life. But just this week, both the United Methodist Church[2] and our own Archbishop of Canterbury[3] have taken steps to ask God to kindly tone it down with the light show. And Yet God is shining on, raging on in glory, as we sit here this morning. 

On that mountain, Jesus’s disciples were overshadowed and disoriented by God. Like Mary at the annunciation when God invited her partnership in bearing God into the world, Peter, and James and John are overshadowed and hear a voice saying “Listen to him”

As we place ourselves in proximity to Jesus, listening to, following as closely as we can, we, too are overshadowed by God. As we listen to that voice, we become bearers of Christ, bearers of that reflected glory of which Paul speaks:”being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another, this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.”  

We do not lose heart, for we are in the middle of the story, surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses; in conversation with the giants of our faith across the ages --complete with blinding flashes of God’s Glory, and the enfolding presence of Divine Love.

In that challenging and even frightening revelation, let us hold on to one another; refusing to shrink back, and going back out into the world proclaiming with boldness what we have seen, and what we have heard. When we listen to and follow Jesus, we become bearers of that reflected, transfiguring light that pierces the darkness and reveals the Truth.

Listen to him.

[1] 2Corinthians3

[2] The Special Session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church voted Feb 29, 2019 to tighten restrictions on ordination of LGBTQI members, and the marriage of same-sex partners.

[3] The General Secretary of the Anglican Communion issued the invitations to the Lambeth Conference 2020, specifically excluding the same-sex spouses of active bishops who received invitations. Feb 15, 2019.