Sermon preached February 10, 2013
Last Sunday after the Epiphany
Last Sunday after the Epiphany
There is an ad spot that runs regularly on MSNBC in which one of their program hosts, Ed Schultz says, “my dad used to tell me you’re going to learn a heck of a lot more listening than you are talking; some of that got through to me.” I think this ad appeals to me so much because it rings true in my own experience. When I remember, when I make a conscious effort, I am actually a very good listener. But, in some circumstances - when I have a strong opinion, when I am frustrated by what I am hearing, when I am distracted by other things in my head – then my ability to listen is hindered. Perhaps some of you experience the same thing.
It might seem odd to be talking about “listening” on a Sunday when our Scripture describes a scene with amazing visual effects. In the gospel for today, we find Jesus, Peter, John and James at the top of a mountain. None of the gospels identify this mountain and scholars do not agree on its location. Since the 3rd century, some Christians – including Origen – assumed it was Mount Tabor, today the site of one of many churches of the Transfiguration. Others suggest that it is more likely that it was a mountain near Caesarea-Philippi given the recent movement of the disciples (as least as described by Matthew’s Gospel). Given this lack of consensus and the gospel writers’ seeming disinterest in such a detail, I like to imagine it as Rib Mountain – a big hill really – located in my hometown of Wausau, Wisconsin. From the top of this mountain one can look out for miles and today see the smoke rising from the paper mills as far south as Brokaw, the neat rows of farmers’ crops growing in the summertime, the outline of some of my favorite local golf courses, and, of course, as I always like to point out to friends who are visiting for the first time – look over there – that’s my elementary school – and over here – that’s where I went to high school. All of these landmarks of importance in my life come into view at the top of Rib Mountain. So, wherever the disciples and Jesus are standing, I imagine that they too can see all the places they have been from a perspective that is just magnificent. Indeed, the location of the Transfiguration had to have provided a beautiful view.
And, then, of course the Transfiguration itself – Jesus’ face changes, his clothes become dazzling white, Moses and Elijah appear next to him, and, the next thing you know, is that the whole scene – Moses, Elijah, Jesus, Peter, John, James, and the mountaintop itself – is engulfed by a great cloud. Truly an amazing sight. Such an amazing sight, in fact, that we run the risk of missing the words. Listen. Moses and Elijah and Jesus “appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” Apparently we are not the only ones who risk missing the dialogue; because the very next verse in the gospel says that “Peter and his companion were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.” No mention of their hearing the important conversation taking place. And, Peter’s next action makes it clear that they have not heard – or, if hearing, that they have not understood – for Peter offers to make three dwelling places there on the mountaintop, one each for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses. It is not clear what purpose these dwelling places would serve – to capture for eternity this glorious moment? – to create a monument to these great men? But, it becomes immediately clear that Peter has it all wrong because even before he can complete his thought, they are engulfed in the cloud and God’s voice declares, “'This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!'. . . . And they kept silent . . .”
Listen – not see – listen. This Last Sunday after the Epiphany marks a turning point in our liturgical year. For the past several weeks we have engaged our sight as we have witnessed the birth of Christ, his baptism in the river Jordan, and the turning of water into wine. Joan Chittister, a Benedictine Sister, describes the Sundays after the Epiphany as opportunities to pause and “to take it all in” – and, ultimately, “to become what we see in Jesus.” And, today, on this last Sunday, we see the glorious transfiguration and are called to turn our attention to listening, to seeking deep meaning, to a 40 day fast in the wilderness of our faith, a fast which will begin this Wednesday as we gather for the imposition of ashes and a reminder of our utter reliance on God to lead us.
Scott Hoezee, Director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary, offers this reflection on today’s text:
“. . . how can it be, following on one of the most dazzling visual spectacles that ever took place on this planet, that the bottom line from God the Father is ‘Listen to him.’ Listen? Listen, and not ‘Look’? Why go through all this razzle-dazzle, bright-as-lightning stuff if the whole incident ends up being more about ears than eyes?
And,” he continues,
“if it seems odd to hear God the Father follow up this visual display with advice that has to do with listening and not looking, maybe that’s because we, too, are often overly fixated on outward fame and power and glory as the world defines all those things and maybe that gets in the way of our truly listening to what Jesus says about humility and sacrifice and being servants of the lowest of the low in our societies yet today.”
Jesus is transfigured on the mountaintop and the disciples – then and now – are invited to be transformed. To turn away from visions – whether of God or of humanity – and turn toward listening.
Traditionally, the 40 days of Lent, have been a time when individuals “give-up” something in order to focus more clearly on God. The purpose of the “giving-up”, however, often becomes lost. We must remember that we are not invited to “give up” for the sake of “giving-up.” For this reason, a more recent movement has emerged, in which people – rather than giving up – take something on during Lent – silent meditation, community service work, Scripture reading, tithing, to name just a few. But, whether we choose to give something up or take something on the goal is the same: to free ourselves from selfish wants and desires and return to God. The baptismal covenant invites us to do the same when it asks, “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?”
According to the Center for Internal Change, individuals “screen out or change the intended purpose of what they hear in over 70% of all communications.” They go on to describe some specific ways of improving our listening ability. Imagine if as a community we covenanted this Lenten season to take on the practice of listening. Imagine how our world might change if we listened so carefully to the culture around us that when we share the good news of Christ outside our doors, we can do so through the windows of communication that have been developed from the outside in. Imagine how our community might change if we listened carefully in order to figure out what is the spirit of what is being said, getting the whole picture without allowing our own judgments and emotions to get in the way. Imagine how our hearts might be changed if we listened in such a way that people could know they are being cared for as they tell us their feelings and their thoughts.
“'This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!'. . . . And they kept silent . . .”
 Joan Chittister, The Liturgical Year: The Spiraling Adventure of the Spiritual Life, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2009), p. 97, 98.
 BCP 304.