Senior Pastor Rich Darr's message in response to General Conference 2019 vote:
Listen Up!(Luke 9: 28-36 - Transfiguration Sunday)March 3, 2019UMCG
As I was reading Luke’s story of the Transfiguration this week, it brought back my childhood days of growing up in the church, and how difficult it was as a child to stay awake during Wednesday night prayer meetings. As missionaries, our family life revolved around church. Our folks made sure the whole family attended church every Sunday morning…first for worship, and then for Sunday School—no “ifs,” “ands,” or “buts.” After Sunday lunch, we’d be back at church by 4 p.m. or so for children’s or youth group. And 5:30-6:30 p.m. was supper time and then…back to church for Sunday evening worship.
But it didn’t end there! Every Wednesday evening our folks brought us back to church for the mid-week prayer meeting that began at 7 p.m. and lasted who knows how long. In my experience, a long and often boring sermon was followed by a long and boring time of prayer. So, I’m here to tell you, I can readily identify with Peter and his companions in today’s story…a story of a prayer meeting on a mountain top with Jesus. Today’s Gospel tells us that “Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep…but they stayed awake.”
Now, in case you didn’t know it, Transfiguration Sunday is definitely not a favorite topic for many pastors. Why? Because as many commentaries and lectionary preaching aids readily admit, this is a notoriously difficult passage to preach. For example, why is this story included in the Gospels? And why do the various Gospels put it in different places as their stories unfold? What is its meaning and function in each Gospel…and how in the world does it apply to us today?
Since our version of the story of the Transfiguration comes from Luke’s Gospel, I cut to the chase and gave my brother John a call. After all, he is a New Testament scholar who has devoted his life to the study of Luke’s Gospel. So, I got him on the phone the other day. When we got around to talking about this week’s sermon, I started off by saying, “I’m not quite sure what’s going on in Luke’s version of the Transfiguration, but one thing that jumps out at me as of great importance is the voice of God, booming from the cloud, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!’” I said, “John, whatever else is going on here, it seems as though listening to Jesus is paramount!”
In effect, my brother said, “Hey, that’s not too bad, Rich!” He went on to say, “One of the most important themes in Luke’s story of Jesus is the theme of perception…the theme of seeing and hearing…of looking and listening.” Over and over again, in the book of Luke, Jesus quotes the Hebrew prophet Isaiah, chapter 6:9: “Seeing they do not see; and hearing they do not hear.”
Aha! Listen up! Pay attention! In Luke 9, we are told that “while he (Jesus) was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they (the three disciples) saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure…Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory.” Obviously, Peter “saw” Jesus transfigured but did not really understand what he was seeing, because he blubbered something about building three tents—one for Moses, one for Elijah and one for Jesus “not knowing what he was saying.” (We blubber nonsense sometimes when we are sleep deprived too, don’t we?) And then things got really foggy for the disciples as they were swallowed up in a cloud. And then… from the cloud came a voice saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.”
Throughout his Gospel, Luke asks, “Who is looking for Jesus and seeing him for who he really is?” And “who is listening to Jesus, and really hearing and understanding what he has to say?” Almost from the get-go, from the beginning of his story, Luke begins a long, drawn-out series of comparisons between those who “see” and “hear’—and those who do not. Ironically, it is the religious people of the day, especially the Pharisees, who though they observe Jesus meticulously…they fail to “see,” “hear,” “understand” and “obey” him.
So, who does see and hear him? Tax collectors and sinners! As brother John writes in his book *On Character Building in Luke-Acts, “the Pharisees whom one expects to recognize and respond to Jesus correctly (because they know the law and the tradition), do not! The sinners and tax collectors, who should not be able to recognize Jesus and respond correctly to him, do.”
Why? Why are the Pharisees unable to see, hear, understand and respond appropriately to Jesus? It’s all because of the condition of their “hearts.” Our eyes and our ears (our ability to see and hear, to recognize and understand) are directly connected to our hearts…our heart attitudes. For the Pharisees, you see, have hearts that “are unrepentant, and their lack of repentance has to do with religious elitism, and arrogance, and injustice toward the economically and socially disadvantaged.”
Ironic reversals fill the pages of Luke. For those who think they are pure and holy…well, they’re not! And those so easily labeled as impure and unholy…they turn out to be the pure and the holy. Those who think they are insiders with God are actually on the outside. And those labeled as outsiders, rejected from full participation in the organized religion of their day, well…they end up finding themselves on the inside with Jesus and God because of their humility, their repentance, their open acknowledgment of their need for God’s love and grace.
**Pastor Robert Lyons of Waldron UMC in Waldron, Arkansas, in a sermon preached several years ago on the Transfiguration, says that “when the disciples react like we would react to the sight of the transfiguration unfolding before their eyes, God appears in a cloud…a veil of missed comprehension. Christ stands before us transfigured and all we can do, like Peter, is suggest tent-building. God doesn’t seem to be too interested in our tents. Instead, God is bubbling over with adoration. ‘This is my Son, in whom I am well pleased.’ Should we make a tent for God? No—instead, ‘Listen to him, to Jesus.’”
Pastor Lyons goes on to say that “listening to Jesus, however, involves confronting our fears… But, we want to protect God under the tents of our dogmas, our customs, and our explanations…The world is just so much more manageable if I can stake my claim on the idea that God hates something rather than the idea that God loves everyone. If I can build my identity around something, I might find in scripture that God ‘hates,’ some abomination that doesn’t apply to me, then I can point my finger at others instead of claiming my own sinfulness. Building walls to keep the ‘other’ out is a lot easier than letting Christ in…Christ’s love is a transformative love, a healing love. And I can’t open myself to Christ’s love without being transfigured myself. When we open our hearts to the transforming, transfiguring love of Christ, we’re blinded by the light. And when we recover from this life-changing event, it often means that we may find love in our heart for the very people we THOUGHT God hates!”
The General Conference of our beloved United Methodist Church went to the mountain top in St. Louis this past week and voted 438 to 384 to continue to reject the full inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons in our denomination. That vote was a clear institutional rejection of the right of LGBTQ+ persons to full inclusion in the life of the United Methodist Church, whether for marriage, for ordination as clergy, or for consecration as bishops.
In the foggy aftermath of that vote, may God help us see the Jesus of the Gospels clearly…the Jesus who included the excluded, who welcomed women and children to come to him, the Jesus who ate with sinners and tax collectors, the Jesus who stood in solidarity with the poor, the powerless, the marginalized, and oppressed. When we think of the General Conference vote, may we see that Jesus! And may we hear God’s voice calling…calling us to listen to Jesus, to hear and respond to his message of bringing Good News to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. May we see clearly…and listen carefully to that Jesus, and respond appropriately. Amen.
…………………*John Darr, On Character Building: The Reading and the Rhetoric of Characterization in Luke-Acts. Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992, chapter 4. **Pastor Robert Lyons, Waldron UMC blogspot, Waldron, AR.