Who are we listening to? (A sermon for Transfiguration Sunday - Matthew 17:1-9)
I know I’m not the preacher originally planned for this pulpit exchange. But you know, sisters and brothers, sometimes you just have to take what you can get. [Note: This Sunday I exchanged pulpits with Rev. Sandy Lacey the pastor of First Presbyterian church, Frankfort, Ky. The minister that was scheduled to to be at First Pres. couldn't make it, so when Sandy was lamenting that at our clergy gathering I volunteered to take his place. Our churches benefited greatly from the exchange]
The story is told that Franklin Roosevelt often complained about the long receiving lines at the White House. He said that no one really listened. One day he decided to try an experiment. To each person that shook his hand, he said in a low voice, “I murdered my grandmother this morning.” Guests responded with phrases like, “Marvelous, keep up the good work.” “We are proud of you, sir.” The ambassador of Bolivia, however, leaned over and whispered to the President, “I’m sure she had it coming.” Maybe you had this coming.
Who are we listening to? Well, hopefully you will listen to me today. Maybe you have heard the little ditty: My preacher’s s eyes I’ve never seen / Though light from them may shine / For when he prays, he closes his / And when he preaches, mine. I sometimes tell my congregation that I welcome crying babies in the service, because at least I know someone is awake.
In our story today Jesus is transfigured in the presence of three of his disciples. The Divine Voice repeats the affirmation that was first uttered at Jesus’ baptism: This is my Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. While the revelation at Jesus’ Baptist was primarily for the benefit of Jesus, here the revelation or epiphany is for the benefit of his disciples. Here the Divine Voice commands emphatically: Listen to him. Don’t listen to those voices who want an insurrectionist to lead them against Rome. Don’t listen to those who clamor for a miracle worker who can provide for all their needs. Don’t listen to the threats and anger of the religious leaders who want to silence Jesus and evoke fear in his followers. No, says the Voice, you listen to Jesus.
When I read the baptism story I am asking myself: Do I hear the divine voice saying to me: You are my son. Do we hear the Divine voice saying to us, you are my daughter, you are my son, in you I am well pleased. Can we hear that voice? If not, why not? Because that is who we are. We are all the dearly beloved daughters and sons of God. So the question that confronts us at Jesus’ baptism is: Have I claimed by faith who I am and am I living out that reality? Am I becoming who I am?
When I read the transfiguration story I am asking myself: Who am I listening to? Am I listening to the one who embodied and incarnated so beautifully what it means to be a son or daughter of God? And what does that mean for me right now?
If we are listening to Jesus, then we cannot be listening to the voices that are screaming, “America first.” As much as we all love our country and all the freedoms guaranteed by our democracy – such as the freedom to publicly advocate for or peacefully protest against policies and laws that we consider to be just or unjust – as much as we value such freedoms, we must listen to Jesus who says: Seek first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness or a better translation, God’s justice.
When Jesus says seek first God’s righteousness or justice he is not talking about righteousness as personal piety or justice as in getting what one deserves. When Jesus talks about God’s righteousness or justice he is talking about righteousness or justice in the prophetic tradition. The prophets railed against those who were devout in their observance of religious customs and rituals but neglected and took advantage of the orphans, the widows, and the aliens or strangers – the three most vulnerable groups in ancient Israel. In our culture this would be the poor, the disadvantaged, and the undocumented. Jesus also added to that the religiously condemned and socially marginalized. To seek God’s justice is to seek restorative or social justice for all these vulnerable children of God.
If we are listening to Jesus, then we cannot listen to the voices ignited by fear, insecurity, and civil religion that are proclaiming “America first.” For disciples of Jesus it must always be the kingdom of God first and God’s healing, merciful, liberating, restoring, and reconciling justice.
If we are listening to Jesus, then we cannot listen to the voices that are saying “me first.” Just before the transfiguration scene Jesus tells his disciples about his death – how he will undergo rejection and great suffering and be killed by the powers that be. Then he says, as if trying to weed out the crowd, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross, and follow me.” Jesus is preparing them for rejection and suffering, and he makes it clear that there can be no discipleship apart from self-denial.
Now, don’t misunderstand. He is not saying, “hate yourself.” In fact, we can only love others to the degree that we love ourselves. If we don’t value our own lives then we are not likely to value the lives of others. What he is telling them and us to do is deny, relinquish, let go of, die to our little selves, our egotistical selves, our self-centered selves, what Thomas Merton called our false selves.
And these three disciples who were with Jesus on the mount had not yet learned to do that. Peter would later deny he even knew Jesus, and a little bit later, in chapter 20, James and John ask Jesus if they can sit on his left and right in his kingdom. In Matthew’s version they have their mother ask Jesus on their behalf if they can occupy first and second place. Clearly, they have not learned to deny the little self, the ego self and they completely misunderstand the nature of God’s kingdom. They are looking for a high place and position, for prominence, prestige, and power. Jesus says that tyrants and people in power like to lord it over others. But not so with you. The kingdom of God is not about greatness, it’s about service. It’s not about being first, it’s about serving others. In fact, Jesus says in several places in the Gospels, that in God’s upside-down kingdom the first shall be last and the last shall be first.
If we listen to Jesus, then we cannot listen to those voices that are shouting “America first” and we cannot listen to those voices that are proclaiming, “me first.” Now, on the positive side, if we listen to Jesus, then we must listen to the Divine Voice that says, “Love first.” It’s not America first or me first, it’s love first.
In chapter 22 Jesus is asked about the greatest commandment in the law. Jesus says that the greatest commandment is twofold: love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus says: On these two commandments – love God and love your neighbor – hang all the law and the prophets – all the law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.
In the transfiguration story Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus. A number of interpreters believe that Moses and Elijah function as representatives of the law and the prophets. Jesus is first transfigured. Then Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus. Then while Peter is talking nonsense a bright cloud overshadows them, and out of the cloud the divine voice says, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased, listen to him.” And then Moses and Elijah, as if in a Star Trek scene, are transported out as suddenly as they were transported in. Jesus then touches the disciples, who have cowered down in fear, and when they look up, the text says "they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.”
Clearly, Moses and Elijah have secondary roles, but I do not think that Matthew is teaching that Jesus supersedes the law and the prophets. I think this is Matthew’s way of showing continuity between Jesus and the prophets, and his way of showing that the very best of the law and the prophets find their realization and fulfillment in the life and teaching of Jesus. What does it mean to listen to Jesus?
- Listening to Jesus means heeding the call to love the world the way Jesus loves the world.
- Listening to Jesus means breaking down barriers and inviting all people to the table of fellowship, regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, place in society, or anything else.
- Listening to Jesus means engaging in works of healing and liberation, forgiveness and reconciliation.
- Listening to Jesus means standing with and for the poor and vulnerable, the disenfranchised and the marginalized, the excluded and rejected.
- Listening to Jesus means loving all people with an expansive, magnanimous, persistent love – and loving even those who would call themselves our enemies.
- Listening to Jesus means putting love first – in our families, in our church, in our community, and society at large.
Paul was listening when he said of the three great spiritual realities – faith, hope, and love – love is the greatest. The writer of 1 John was listening when he said that where ever love is God is, because God is love. The writer of Ephesians was listening when he said that to be imitators of God we must live in love as Christ loved us.
The kingdom of God is really the kin-dom of God, because it’s all about mercy and justice; it’s about relationships and working for the common good. I love the poem written by Cynthia Kirk titled, Kin-dom Without Walls. (Not Kingdom, but Kin-dom)
Imagine a place / Where mercy resides, / Love forms each heart, / Compassion lived out with grit and determination. / A place where lavish signs / Mark each path barrier free.
Imagine a place / Where skin tones are celebrated / Like the hues of tulips in springtime. / Where languages inspire / With symphonies of diversity. / Where Respect schools us / In custom and history / And every conversation / Begins with a bow of reverence.
Imagine a place where each person wears glasses, / Clarity of vision for all. / Recognizing each one, everything / Made in the image of God.
Imagine a place / Where carrots and pasta / Doctor’s skills and medications / Are not chained behind barbed wire - / Food, shelter, health care available for all.
Imagine a place where / Every key of oppression / Was melted down to form public art / Huge fish, doves, lions, and lambs / On which children could play.
Imagine a place where / People no longer kept watch / Through the front window / To determine whether the welcome mat / Would remain on the porch.
Such is the work / The journey / The destination / In the kin-dom of God.
Can we imagine such a place? Can we be such a place?
Maybe we can if we will close our ears to the voices that say, “America first”
Maybe we can if will turn away from those voices that are clamoring, “Me first”
Maybe we can if will heed the divine voice incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth that says, “Love first.”
Who are we listening to? I hope we are listening to Jesus who is the voice of love.
Our good God, there are many voices in today’s world that would mislead us and deceive us. Help us to tune into your voice – the voice of love that we see in the life and actions of Jesus and that we hear in his words and deeds. Give us, O God, eyes to see, ears to hear, and the will to obey the voice of love.