March 3, 2019; Transfiguration Sunday Exodus 34:29-35; Luke 9:28-36
Every year on the Sunday before Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, we read this story. It is the story of Jesus being transfigured— changing somehow in ways that no one could explain, even then— while also being accompanied by Elijah and Moses, and even by the very voice of God.
At first blush, this seems like it would be a dream come true for the disciples. How often do we, as people of faith, long to have assurance of that faith. How often do we want to see Jesus— and not necessarily the humanity of Jesus, the muddy footed, tired, sweaty guy who walked through Palestine, but the divine Jesus— the one who fed five thousand people and spoke of love and makes everything right again.
Yes, this story brings with it awe and amazement and longing as we hear it because everything seems so clear. Moses is there: the one who led the people out of slavery and organized them into being God’s children; Elijah is there: the greatest prophet who ever lived; and then God’s voice comes out of the heavens and declares once again that Jesus is God’s Son and they should listen to him.
Yes, this seems like a story that puts everything in its rightful place. It’s very similar to what I was hoping would happen at General Conference this past week.
For those of you who haven’t heard from the media outlets or Facebook or the Star Tribune, or even from the email I sent out this week, the United Methodist Church as a whole— our global UMC— gathered together in St. Louis this week. We gathered together with one purpose, and one purpose only— to figure out what to do with the fact that we cannot agree on whether to marry or ordain people within the GLBTQIA community. I should qualify that and say that there are many people within that community who have been married within the United Methodist Church and many more who have been ordained and are serving churches, and that, of course, has been the rub. Because some folks have been mad that our discipline as a church denies us authority to marry and ordain people who identify as GLBTQIA, even as they are marrying and ordaining people; and others have been mad that Bishops and Conferences have not been holding people accountable for marrying and ordaining people within that community.
In other words, the family that is the United Methodist Church, looks a lot like many of our families. We can’t agree and we don’t know what to do. And so we came together to try to figure it out.
And to be perfectly honest, I was hoping for a Transfiguration moment. I had no notion that everyone was going to all of a sudden agree with me. I wasn’t that naive. But I did think that perhaps we could agree that we can’t agree, and once again declare that the UMC is a wide tent theologically and affirm that ministry looks different in different contexts. If I am to be honest with you this morning, I was hoping, as many many people were hoping, that we would see our church transfigured into something that might reflect at least a little bit of Jesus Christ.
And I am sad to say, that’s not what we saw. And that’s not what the world saw. And as I met with Staff on Tuesday morning and then the leadership of this church, the Ad Council, at our normal meeting time on Tuesday night, our hearts were heavy with the news that the church voted by a small majority, to not only keep our current policies of not marrying or ordaining people within the GLBTQIA community, but to begin a practice of punishing people who do not follow the Discipline. Although called the Traditional Plan, there is really nothing less traditional than having punitive measures given out by some global governance that we don’t even have as part of our governance structure. So it’s unclear what any of this will mean yet, especially for the United Methodist Church in the United States, which clearly supported a plan that allowed for theological difference.
This was not the moment of transfiguration that I had been praying and hoping for. But as I read and reread and reread this Scripture this week, there are many little things that all of a sudden jumped out at me.
The first thing I noticed is that we are told the only reason the disciples get to see Jesus and Elijah and Moses is because they stayed awake. Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep, and in some translations it actually says they woke up to see Jesus and Elijah and Moses together. Perhaps this isn’t a moment of clarity for the disciples at all, but a wake-up call for them to see what really needs to happen. Their expectations of Jesus, that he will be the earthly Messiah and make everything right again, are not the reality and Jesus keeps trying to tell them that. But here, as the disciples have come with those expectations anyway, they begin to wake up and hear Jesus and Elijah and Moses talking about Jesus’ death. In many ways this week was a wake up call to the United Methodist Church that what we have known up to this point is really dying. We’re not going to save anything through legislation. We’re going to have to trust that God knows where to lead us next.
The second thing I noticed about this passage is that God doesn’t invite them to stay on the mountain top. Peter, of course, thinks this is awesome. He’s hanging out with Moses and Elijah. He gets to be part of the new Kingdom of God that’s going to fix everything. So he suggests that they build houses on the mountain. He’s getting ready to settle in, to build a fire, to get really comfortable right there, building a house around Jesus. And that’s when God interrupts him with a cloud that makes it impossible for him to see. When we, as a church— whether the global church or this local church— begin to think that we can build a nice cozy house around Jesus, I pray God will always cover us in a blanket of clouds and confusion so that we can remember what it really means to follow Jesus.
And the third thing that I noticed as I kept reading in Luke, is that the very next day as they come down the mountain, before they’ve even had time to rest, a man comes asking Jesus to heal his son. And this, too, is important for all of us to remember. That the needs of the world are always here, locally, no matter what is going on elsewhere. Our call is to this community at this time. We are no less called to be in ministry in this place and at this time than we were a week ago. God is still at work within us.
We, as First UMC of the St. Cloud Region, have stood for inclusivity and justice and welcome for all for over 160 years. I can say this because you have told me these stories for the last five years that I have been here. We have been putting love first, and that won’t stop now. We have been taking seriously our call to be a Trauma Responsive Congregation that God put on our hearts last spring, and that won’t stop now. We have a call, here in Central Minnesota, to love people, and nothing can stop that now. We will continue to be a part of God’s healing of the world. We will continue to follow Jesus Christ in all that we do. We will continue to proclaim as Paul wrote in Romans 8 that nothing can separate us from the love of God— not life nor death; not who we love or who we don’t; not my theology or yours; nothing can separate us from the love of God— not even the church. And I pray that nothing will separate this church from sharing that love with everyone— everyone. I will continue to pray for a day when the church will stop harming people and will focus entirely on being part of God’s abundant healing love. And I invite you to pray with me as we work towards a day when we will reflect God’s amazing love in Jesus Christ.