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“Who’s In Charge Here?”
Rev. Kyle Matthews to First Baptist Church, Greenville, South Carolina
Transfiguration Sunday – March 2, 2014
Scripture Texts: Matthew 17:1-9

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Matthew 17:1-9 (New Revised Standard Version)

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.[/fusion_tab]

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[title size=”3″]Transcript[/title]

When I got the call from Baxter Wynn to come to Greenville and preach on this Sunday, I immediately looked at the lectionary and realized that I had been issued an invitation to preach on Transfiguration Sunday. I’ll admit, I wondered for a moment if it was a mistake. Did Baxter realize what a jewel of a day he giving over to a guest preacher? Everyone knows, guest preachers usually get the seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost in the Season of Ordinary Time, not Transfiguration Sunday—such a highpoint on the church’s calendar!

Transfiguration Sunday is the last Sunday for weeks when the paraments and liturgical vestments are white. And white paraments, you know, are reserved for very special days on the church’s calendar. Transfiguration is a day to pull out all the celebratory stops on the organ—the mixtures and the reeds. Transfiguration Sunday is one of the real highpoints in the church year.

But, I decided not to press the issue with Baxter. I would just assume it wasn’t a mistake and even if it were, it would be tacky to rescind the invitation after I let several weeks pass. Instead, I would just believe what is most likely the truth of the matter anyway—that Baxter is an abundantly generous minister to share the pulpit with a guest preacher on such a special day (even though I would have been just as pleased to come on the seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost). So here I am—a sojourner from the land of California whose real home is in Duncan, South Carolina—with you, First Baptist Greenville, on this special Sunday of Transfiguration. And I am very grateful to be here.

About the time Baxter invited me to join you on Transfiguration Sunday, I read a Native American story retold by Jo-ann Archibald, a professor of indigenous studies in Canada. She tells a story she once heard featuring the figure of Coyote, which is a popular character appearing in many stories from the peoples indigenous to North America. The story goes like this:

Coyote finds a hole in the toe of his favorite moccasins after a long day hunting. He searches for his special bone needle to sew them, crawling around the fire as he tries to find it. Owl sees him and comes to help. After Owl can’t find the needle, he asks Coyote where he last used it. Coyote says he last used it “over in the bushes” to mend his jacket. Owl asks Coyote why he’s looking around the campfire, instead of in the bushes. “Well,” Coyote replied, “it’s easier to look for the needle here because the fire gives off such good light, and I can see better here.”Add a Tooltip Text

In some Native American stories, Coyote is a creator, in others he’s a hero of supernatural proportions, in others a messenger, and in still others, Coyote is simply a buffoon. I’m not really sure which one he is in this story, to tell you the truth.

In some of the Gospel stories, the disciples play these very same disparate roles. Sometimes heroes, sometimes messengers, and a lot of the time, they’re buffoons. And I’m not sure which they are in today’s Gospel text. At first, I was leaning toward buffoon. But their buffoonery is just so easy to identify with, that I hesitate to apply the label.

Today’s passage from the Gospel of Matthew begins, “Six days later…” (Makes you kind of curious about what the lectionary is trying to hide from us, doesn’t it?) Looking back on the previous week in Matthew’s account sheds a little light on what happens up on the mountaintop “six days later.” They had just spent a fine time together in Caesarea Philippi. Peter had said some really wonderful things about Jesus: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” Peter said. In a moment of clarity, he really seemed to get where things were going in Jesus’ life. And then Jesus reciprocated by saying some really grand things about Peter in return: “Blessed are you, Peter…on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it!”

Jesus seemed so pleased with Peter’s insight, that he let him in on a little of what the future held for them. Jesus told the disciples that they were going to Jerusalem and that things wouldn’t turn out so well there. Suffering and death, in fact, were the words Jesus used to describe the road ahead—a bleak picture of their future, to say the least.

Then, one of the most tense and uncomfortable scenes in all the Gospels occurs. Peter is overcome by the thought of Jesus suffering and dying and he blurts out, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” And Jesus seemed to change his tune about Peter rather quickly. “Get behind me, Satan!,” Jesus said to Peter. “You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” My God, how quickly things change. From, “You are the rock against which the gates of Hell shall not prevail!” to “Get behind me, Satan…you’re a rock alright, but you’re a rock I’m at risk of stumbling over.”

But it’s a natural inclination, isn’t it? To protect the ones you love so much. To want to hold onto them, even when the future is clear and the road ahead is bleak at best. Does Peter really deserve these harsh words from such a moody Jesus?

As I was preparing this sermon, I kept thinking about one of the connections I have with you here at First Baptist Greenville in the life of Gayle Price. She’s one of the figures I credit with teaching me how to write when I was a freshman at Gardner-Webb University. She and I also traveled the ancient streets of Greece together, which I’ll never forget. I remember the stories she told about this church—good stories, funny stories. And she was a great storyteller. And I know from talking with some of you that her memory and her legacy live large here filling your hallways and your hearts. No one could have expressed it any better than Peter after she was diagnosed with cancer, when her future became clear and the road ahead looked bleak, at best: “God forbid it, Gayle! God forbid it! This must never happen to you.” And you know this feeling now more than ever with the very recent loss of your two beloved friends and stalwart members here at First Baptist: Jim Neal and Sonny Horton. It’s a natural inclination, isn’t it? To hold tight to the ones you love and try to protect them from harm.

“Six days later,” Peter and James and John are hiking up the mountain behind Jesus. And without any great buildup, the text just says, “And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” And Peter, proud as he could be, said, “Lord, ain’t it good we’re here!”

And the very same thing that happened six days before was happening again, six days later. Peter wanted to cling to the moment just a little longer and offered to build three shelters for Jesus and Moses and Elijah so that they could all just stay up on the mountain a little longer. And the text says, “While he was still speaking” (which is a nice way of saying, “Since Peter never shut up…”)—“While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved.’”

Well, to be fair, Peter had just said that very same thing not a week ago, but nevertheless, this utterance was a bit more dramatic and came with a light show. And, “When the disciples heard it, they fell to the ground…overcome by fear.”

But it’s perfectly natural, isn’t it? Just when the future was becoming clear and the road ahead was looking bleak at best—when Jesus told them that what was coming for him was suffering and death—that Peter would speak up and say, “God forbid it, Lord! God forbid it!” And when they got up that mountain and “suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them” and the glory was resplendent and the clothes were “dazzling white” and the voice from the bright cloud was so resounding that it was palpable like the greatest of celebratory stops on this grand organ—like a 32’ Bombarde—so palpable that they fell to the ground in fear but didn’t want it to end.

But it did end—just as suddenly as it had begun. Just like Transfiguration always ends: with a journey back down the mountain. And here we are, on the cusp of that same journey ourselves—between the bright, dazzling white resplendence of Transfiguration, and the approaching darkness of Lent.

Today, the bright white paraments bespeak celebratory joy.

But Wednesday—Ash Wednesday—the dazzling white will be stripped away just as suddenly as it appeared and the dark penitent purple will appear all around you, a sign of the contemplative mystery and solemnity of Lent.

They just wanted to cling to the moment a little longer, to cling to their companion, Jesus, just a little longer. “We’ll build three shelters for you up here and just stay for a while. We’re in no hurry.” And just as they were getting ready to institutionalize the event with an edifice, to preserve the memory with a structure, to add a little permanence to a moment that seemed too quickly passing, it was time to go.

Jesus didn’t even have to say it this time, it was still so fresh in his memory, “Oh Peter, you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” And down the mountain he went from the transcendent splendor of Transfiguration to the sweaty, swarming crowds of humanity waiting beneath and he had the disciples in tow behind him.

When the future becomes clear and the road ahead looks bleak at best, isn’t it just as natural an inclination as you can imagine—to make a monument out of the moment, to add a little permanence to the precious experiences of passing transcendence.

Today, the word is, “Suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them.”

But Wednesday, the word will be, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Owl asks Coyote why he’s looking for his needle around the campfire, instead of in the bushes where he lost it. “‘Well,’ [Coyote replied,] ‘it’s easier to look for the needle here because the fire gives off such good light, and I can see better here.’”

What you’re looking for isn’t in the light…

That’s the startling reversal in this text of scripture: what took place up on the mountain—what Peter tried so hard to cling to—seemed like the divinest of moments but the movement of the Divine was down the mountain to the crowds beneath. That’s the great reversal taking place in Transfiguration that we’ll miss if we’re not careful: the movement of the Divine is toward the experiences of life that seem most fragile, most fraught with fear, most vulnerable. What you’re looking for isn’t in the light high up on the mountain, but in the precarious experiences of life taking place down the mountain.

The great civil rights activist, Angela Davis, says that people often ask her what moment of epiphany led her into a life of social activism—calling her to devote her entire life to the work of justice, equality, peace, and freedom and, on occasion, ending up in jail because of it. After thinking over these recurring questions, Davis said, “I eventually realized that I had never experienced a single epiphany that directed my life toward social activism…The answers turned out to be quite ordinary. There had never been a dramatic moment…Wherever I am, whatever I happen to be doing, I try to feel connected to futures that are only possible through struggle.”Add a Tooltip Text

What might it mean that our future is down the mountain? That clinging to the resplendent glory and the dazzling white—looking for our meaning, our purpose, our future in the light—is an all-too-understandable grasping for security and assurance and permanence, when our call emerges out of the dark and our journey is a downward descent into the depths of human precarity and pain and possibilities for a future yet unrealized. What might it mean for you—First Baptist Church of Greenville—that your future is only possible through struggle.

That’s the real disadvantage of a guest preacher: I have no idea what this will mean for you as a church. I know enough of your recent story to know that struggle is not foreign to you as a congregation. I’ve listened to enough of the sermons of your skillful ministers to know that your future is an open question of precarity and possibility.

I know enough to know that struggle marks the life of nearly every congregation in the U.S. these days: the struggle to survive and find purpose when the future of denominational decline is clear and the road ahead for many churches is bleak at best.

It’s easier to search for our purpose and our identity in the bright light of Transfiguration, even when we know that a great deal of our life as a church is bound up with the darkness of Lent. It’s only natural, isn’t it, to cling to the moments of bright, dazzling transcendence when just as suddenly as they appear the movement of the Divine is back down the mountain, toward the fragility, the fear, the vulnerability of our humanity? From “suddenly a bright cloud” to “remember that you are dust.”

I can’t help but wonder when I consider the storied history of this great congregation— familiar with struggle, acquainted with the fragility of humanity—if this transfiguration isn’t about a whole lot more than the metamorphosis of Jesus up on Mount Tabor that we come and celebrate once a year with our dazzling white paraments. I wonder if it is a sign of your own transfiguration, your own metamorphosis? Can we hear this Transfiguration event as a call toward a future that is only possible through struggle?

Peter said, “God forbid it, Lord! This can never happen to you!…Lord, it’s good for us to be here. Let’s just stay for a while.” Can we see in Peter’s buffoonery a desire of our own that is only natural: to be a bit fearful of impermanence, to want to cling just a little longer to the people

that we love so much whose lives are fleeting, to make a monument out of the moment, to just stay up on the mountain a little while longer where the light is good and we can see a little better?

“Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’” Can we hear in Jesus’ words to the disciples a message for our own journey toward a future that is only possible through struggle—our own journey down the mountain?

It’s the message of the Transfiguration event—not just the part on top of the mountain, you see, but the entire scene including the descent down the mountain to the swarming crowds beneath. The movement of the Divine is down the mountain away from the dazzling but momentary light of transcendence and toward the swarming crowds of humanity beneath. Following the movement of the Divine is a journey toward becoming more in tune with your own humanness, becoming more connected with humanity, becoming, simply, more humane—a journey toward a future that is only possible through struggle.

Owl asks Coyote why he’s looking for his needle around the campfire, instead of in the bushes where he lost it. “‘Well,’ [Coyote replied,] ‘it’s easier to look for the needle here because the fire gives off such good light, and I can see better here.’”

What you’re looking for—what you lost—can’t be found in the light.

Our future must be about more than making monuments out of your best moments. Our future—the only future worth devoting our life to—is a future only possible through struggle.

The call of Transfiguration, to you as individuals and to you as a congregation, isn’t about staying up on the mountain, but to always be somewhere on the journey back down to the crowds of humanity beneath.

“Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’” And just as suddenly as it had begun, it ended. Just like Transfiguration always ends. And they found themselves following Jesus back down the mountain.

Now, here we are, on this celebratory Sunday of Transfiguration—surrounded by dazzling white, overcome with the splendor of it all—and it’s just about time to go.

“Suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed us,” will soon be followed, as it always is, by, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”