Sunday, March 3, 2019
Scripture: Luke 9:28-37a
Rev. Dr. Riley Jensen
On the liturgical calendar, today is Transfiguration Sunday. Unless you were raised as some kind of religious geek, it is a Sunday whose theme is easily passed over in the rollup to Lent. I was not raised in a tradition that paid much attention to the liturgical calendar outside of Christmas and Easter. In fact Pentecost was a bit of an outlier, and it took seminary to introduce me to Advent and Lent. So when it came to Transfiguration Sunday, I could have been convicted of ministerial malfeasance by most of the congregations I served since it went largely ignored on my preaching calendar.
If I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t make the same mistake, not only to conform to some kind of religious correctness, but because the theme of this observance is such an excellent introduction to the season of Lent. For the theme of the story of the Transfiguration is that change can happen. What a positive message to consider as we head into this period of reflection on how we can be more faithful followers of Jesus Christ! And that’s what’s going to happen next week when Troy begins a series on spiritual disciplines.
So, this morning as we prepare to gather around this table which reminds us that God loves us so much that God won’t let us stay the way we are, let’s consider together this story of transforming change which happened on that mountain top with Jesus and his disciples.
Listen now to Luke’s account of the story of the Transfiguration……..and I do invite you to listen because this is a story that needs to be heard since that is how it was originally told.
I don’t know about you, but I have a great deal of sympathy for Peter’s response here. My gosh! The skies had opened! The voice of the universe had sounded! The human form of a friend had been consumed by blinding light! It must have seemed like the forces of the universe had converged on that mountain top in an unmistakable way.
But what do you expect from an illiterate fisherman?…..or for that matter, what do you expect from a bunch of pew sitters who on this day are about to handle the holy and walk into that cloud of mystery which surrounds this Table. I have a lot of sympathy for Peter because he knew something mighty and awesome had happened, and he did his best to lay down a marker.
It’s what we might call an ecotomic moment! And if you understand what that is, I would like to invite you up to finish this meditation. Because “Ecotome” was a new word for me when I was introduced to it not long ago. I’m a big fan of the dictionary game. You know the one – where a participant is asked to pick out a word nobody knows, and then the group tries to create a definition which comes closest to the original meaning.
I suspect that if we did that with “ecotome” you would quickly connect it with its cousin “ecology”. An ecotome I discovered is “a place where two or more ecosystems come together.” For instance – where a river flows into an ocean, or where the plains meet the mountains! It is also described “as a risky place where new life is spawned and new life begins.”
That’s why I want to describe this supernatural transforming time which was part light show and part séance in ecotomic terms. It was, after all, the original thin place where the veil of eternity was torn just enough for the likes of Peter, James, and John to witness a “God-moment” which they could not deny.
Their problem (and ours I think) is what do we do with such an indescribable yet irrefutable experience. That was Peter’s problem, and his response has been the stuff of ridicule down through the ages – three monuments ought to do it so that future generations can come and genuflect and say their prayers and pretend that they understand what it means to be changed into the essence of pure love.
As a preacher, I always had trouble with this story. I think it was a reaction against my fundamentalist roots where I needed to get saved again and again – a regular rite of purification and cleansing from sin which made me feel that I was doing all that I could to get closer to God. And so in some ways this mountain top is very familiar to me. I climbed it again and again, and even met Jesus up there quite regularly. The problem, of course, is that while thin places happen, they can’t be maintained and formalized and bottled and then consumed like an elixir.
Because of the busyness, sometimes franticness of our lives, we all know that times on the mountain top are rare – Sabbath times, times away from demanding schedules, to pray, and discern, and vision, to form new friendships, and to get reacquainted with the friend we have in Jesus. As a working pastor, I always felt guilty that my spiritual life never seemed to measure up to the ideals I was taught. Now while some of that was just unrealistic programming which lingered from a time when the demands of the pastorate were quite different, it was also true that over time attention to my spiritual life became less of a priority.
It was later in life than I care to admit, about ten years ago, that I decided to engage a spiritual director to walk with me and guide in some changes that I wanted to make in my spiritual life. This meant expanding my repertoire of spiritual disciplines and becoming more intentional in my practice of them. Troy is going to be outlining some possible spiritual disciples for you to consider in the weeks to come using a book that is now a classic, “Celebration of Discipline” by my seminary classmate, Richard Foster.
Bless Peter’s heart for trying to hold onto to the moment! But we know that times such as this are gifts of grace which will have meaning for us only if we can translate the vision into needed change. Therefore, I want to submit that God’s grace for you means that change is possible. The truth is that our knee jerk response is usually to resist change, trying something new, taking risks. The seven last words of the church applies also to individuals: “We’ve never done it that way before.”
But in the words of an old Chinese proverb, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.” Our intentional life changes are seldom something huge and dramatic. For instance, if we are looking to make some changes that will contribute to our physical health, it makes more sense to start off by substituting broccoli for a Big Mac, than running a marathon. But whatever spiritual disciplines or life changes you decide to adopt this Lenten season they need not be like Peter’s markers – static and idolatrous.
You and I know that transforming change was not invented by some politician but it is rather the lifelong narrative of those of us who are seeking to live into the mind of Christ. So no matter what changes you may decide to make this Lenten season, you will be able to describe this time in ecotomic terms because that is when change happens – when you give yourself to the community and to prayer and discernment, when you are honest about who you are and where you are, and who God is calling you to be.
If Peter’s markers could be described as idolatrous, we don’t want to make the same mistake as we come to this Table of Grace. This Table can be idolatrous and without meaning if it becomes for us nothing more than a formal ritual, something that we engage only with our head and not with our heart. But it can be so much more. It can in fact become an ecotomic moment as you allow yourself during this time to be claimed by a love that will not let you go, by a love that embraces you as you are but refuses to let you stay that way.
The early church was accused of the practice of cannibalism because they spoke of eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ. While we know that was far from the truth, in some ways we have so domesticated this sacrament that we have lost the power of its meaning. For friends as we share the cup of salvation and the bread of life, we are taking into ourselves the life of Christ so that his life might be lived through us.
That kind of change is radical. That kind of change is ecotomic. That is the kind of change we open ourselves to as we come to the table. May it be so!