A Sermon by David Lloyd
February 26, 2006
Transfiguration and Repentance
This is the last Sunday in Epiphany, so it will be the last Sunday with the theme of “patience and practice.” I hope to suggest some practices for us as individuals and as a congregation.
The prelude to this week’s Gospel lection, which the lectionary skips over, is important to understanding its context. Jesus and the disciples have been in the area of Caesarea Philippi, northeast of the Sea of Galilee. This had long been Gentile land, with at least 14 temples to Baal, a cave that contained a shrine to the birthplace of the Greek god Pan, and a white marble temple built by Herod the Great to honor the divinity of Caesar Augustus. One of the sources of the Jordan River is here, so it was somewhat of a sacred place to Jews as well.
In this place that was sacred to several ancient faiths, Jesus has asked the Twelve, “Who do people believe me to be?” It seems as if he was daring them to compare his teachings to those of those other faiths, and Peter – it was always Peter – responded boldly with, “You are the Messiah, the chosen one, the anointed one.” Jesus insisted that they tell nobody, and that not only would his message be rejected, but that he would suffer and be killed by the authorities. Peter could not believe that this would happen but Jesus cut him off and rebuked him.
Jesus continued by telling them that if they were to be followers of his, they had to leave self behind, take up their cross, and come with him, willing to lose their lives for his sake and the good news of his message. Let there be no misunderstanding. Jesus was not referring to a metaphorical cross. He was speaking this in an area where both Gentiles and Jews who had dared to challenge Rome had been crucified.
In today’s lection six days later Jesus, James, John, and Peter climb nearby Mount Hermon, a sacred mountain, the highest mountain in the Holy Land, about 11,000 feet above the Jordan Valley. From its summit on a clear day one could see the whole of the land of Israel south to the Dead Sea. On that holy mountain, Jesus is transfigured in the eyes of the three disciples – by his whiter than white garment and by Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah, the two greatest figures in Judaism, as an equal. Both Moses and Elijah encountered God on a holy mountain, both saved the people of God through faithfulness to the Word of God, neither had a grave that was a shrine. Moses had confronted the Pharaoh and the Pharaoh’s priests, saved the people of God from Egypt’s oppression, but he was buried in an unmarked grave without ever entering the Promised Land. Elijah, the greatest of the prophets, had confronted King Ahab of Israel and Ahab’s priests and saved the people of God from falling into idol worship, but was taken up into heaven without dying or burial.
For the three disciples, the experience is amazing. As if that wasn’t enough, a cloud blankets them, similar to the one that covered Moses on Sinai, God’s voice from heaven proclaims Jesus as his beloved son, and instructs them to listen to him. When the cloud lifts, Moses and Elijah are gone. Jesus tells the disciples not to tell anyone else about this experience until he had risen from the dead. In a few weeks, Jesus will go to Jerusalem, preach the Good News, confront the religious and political authorities and be killed by them, and by his resurrection save all of the people of God who believe in Him. In a few more weeks, at Pentecost, the disciples’ lives will be transfigured as they preach the Good News, participating in the saving of God’s people, in the leading of them out of the oppression of the world’s powers. All who believe and follow Christ’s way will have their lives transfigured also. A person whose life is transfigured by God’s love in Christ leaves self behind, takes up the cross, and walks with Jesus, willing to lose that life for his sake and the good news of his message.
Look closely at a person near you. Can you see him or her garbed in white, speaking with Moses and Elijah? Do you hear God’s voice saying that this person is beloved? We might practice looking at another with the hope of seeing that person transfigured by God’s love. Doing this regularly might build a stronger community of love.
This Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, we begin the period of Lent, the 40 days before Easter when we focus on Jesus’ final trip to Jerusalem, his death and his resurrection. To help us focus, people frequently chose to take on one or more spiritual disciplines – more prayer, or fasting, or a silent retreat, or some combination of these. In our first class on the Rule of St. Benedict this week, I mentioned my desire for a possible Rule that I could use as a Lenten discipline, and our teacher Ron Arms sent me an e-mail suggesting that there are at least 50 listed in one of the resources available for the class.
Spiritual disciplines for Lent are good things to practice. However, the precursor to all these, the primary spiritual discipline for Lent, the one thing we should be practicing, is repentance. In an essay, “Repentance, Both Door and Path,” [See http://www.frederica.com/writings] which was included in the book Best Christian Writing, 2004,” Frederica Matthewes-Green points out that the first time Jesus appears, in the first Gospel [Mark], the first instruction he gives is “Repent.”
From then on, it is his most consistent message. In all times and every situation, his advice is to repent. Not just the scribes and Pharisees, not just the powerful-he tells even the poor and oppressed that repentance is the key to eternal life….
Talk of repentance makes modern-day Christians nervous. We are embarrassed by the stereotype of old-fashioned preachers hammering on sin and making people feel guilty. We rush to assert that Jesus is not like that, he came out of love, he wants to help us. He knows us deep inside and feels our every pain, and his healing love sets us free.
This is one of those truths that run out of gas halfway home. The question is, “what do we need to be healed of?” Subjectively, we think we need sympathy and comfort, because our felt experience is of loneliness and unease. Objectively, our hearts are eaten through with rottenness. A hug and a smile aren’t enough.
We do not feel like we are rotten; if anything, we feel like other people treat us badly. One of the most popular myths of our age is that if you can claim to be a victim, you’re automatically sinless.
A second popular myth is this: We are nice…. [A] more honest self-assessment would reveal that we are nice when we are comfortable and everything is going our way. Anybody can be nice under those circumstances. As Jesus noted, even sinners do the same, yet our God is kind even to the ungrateful and the selfish. That sort of kindness is a standard we rarely intend, much less meet.
Finally, there is the ever-popular conviction that we are still better than many other people are. Christians should know better than this; God does not judge one person against another, he does not grade on the curve. Yet we find it desperately hard to believe that we are really, truly sinners, because we see people so much worse than us every day in the newspaper. In comparison with them we’re just so gosh-darn nice.
The problem in all these cases is that we are comparing ourselves with others, rather than with the holy God… And once we really decide that it is God himself we want to approach, repentance comes to feel like a clarifying, tough-minded friend.
Repentance is the doorway to the spiritual life, the only way to begin. It is also the path itself, the only way to continue. Anything else is foolishness and self-delusion. Only repentance is both brute-honest enough, and joyous enough, to bring us all the way home….
The starting point for the early church was this awareness of the abyss of sin inside each person….God, who is all clarity and light, wants to make us perfect as he[/she] is perfect, shot through with radiance. The first step in our healing, then, is not being comforted. It is taking a hard look at the cleansing that needs to be done.
This is not condemnation, but right diagnosis. It is not judgmentalism, because the judgment is evenly applied: All are sinners, all have fallen short. It is not false guilt, because a lot of the guilt we feel is in fact deserved; we are guilty. Forgiveness of past sins doesn’t cure the sickness in the heart that continues to yearn after more.
What a relief it is to admit this. Like the woman weeping at Jesus’ feet, we have nothing more to conceal, no more self-justification, no more self-pity. We are fully known, even in the depths that we ourselves cannot see, cannot bear to see. Instead of hoping that God will love us for our good parts and pass over the rest, we know that he died for the bad parts, and will not rest until they are made right…. We are fully loved, and one day will be fully healed, brought into God’s presence without spot or wrinkle or any such thing.
What’s more, repentance enlarges the heart until it encompasses all earthly life, and the sorrow tendered to God is no longer for ourselves alone. Knowing our own sin, we pray in solidarity with all other sinners, even those who hurt us. With all creation, we groan, crying out to God for his healing and mercy. He who does not desire the death of a sinner, but that he turn from his evil and live, puts his Spirit within us, and we too no longer desire any vengeance. Then our ability to love others, even our enemies, broadens like sunlight on the horizon.
The ancient Christian literature on repentance is beautiful-full of simplicity, humility and spreading peace. There is nothing in it of masochism or despair. Those who know themselves to be so greatly forgiven are far from gloomy, but are flooded with joy and deep tranquility. Those who are forgiven much love much. They find it hard to hold grudges against others; they find it hard to hold any thing in this life very tightly. For the Christian, two things seem to be ever linked: sorrow over sin, and gratitude for forgiveness….
The Greek word for repentance, metanoia, means a transformation of the mind, whereby greater clarity and insight are obtained. It does not refer to emotion. St. Paul says, “Be transformed by the renewal of your mind….” Repentance is insight, not emotion.
The Hebrew word shub means to turn from the wrong path onto the right one…Fr. Alexander Men, an outspoken Russian priest who was assassinated in 1990, wrote, “…[I]n the Greek text of the Gospels, it is rendered by an even more resonant word, metanoite, in other words, rethink your life. This is the beginning of healing. Repentance is not a sterile ‘grubbing around in one’s soul,’ not some masochistic self- humiliation, but a re-evaluation leading to action….”
My Lenten task is therefore repentance — to develop insight into my life, to rethink my life, to re-evaluate my life, figuring out where I have gotten off the right path and where and how I can get back on the right track. Not to wallow in feeling guilty for the different ways I have missed the mark, but to make an action plan of commitment and disciplines to help me get back on the path God has intended for me. The commitment comes first; the disciplines will help me implement that commitment.
Let me give you one example. For the last year or so, instead of praying the traditional Lord’s Prayer together in worship, we have been praying a variation developed by the Celebration Circle on a translation used in New Zealand. It does not work for me. It is not the prayer. It is I. I tried for several months to pray it in unison with everyone else, and the unfamiliarity of the words blocked it as prayer. Deborah Sokolove led a wonderful Lenten class last spring on “Praying as Jesus Taught Us,” in which we examined different translations throughout Church history in different cultures. I liked the class a lot, but it did not help me pray the prayer. When I have served as liturgist I have led you in it, but I have not been truly praying it. Several months ago, I decided that I would give it up and instead would silently say the familiar words. (Since I was raised in both Presbyterian and Methodist churches, sometimes I use “debts” and sometimes I use “trespasses.”) I am relieved to be praying, and yet I am saddened by and feel guilty with the knowledge that I am not praying the prayer with the rest of you, that in doing this I have set myself in opposition to you. On Tuesday night in Ron’s class, we prayed the traditional version of the Lord’s Prayer twice, and although we had a little hesitation at “trespasses,” I felt I was truly praying with others in this congregation for the first time in far too long. One of my repentance tasks is to examine what my inability to pray this prayer on Sunday morning is all about, and to find a way to pray with you. I suspect it is going to take some hard work on my part to get back on the path.
I spoke of being transfigured as an individual member of the Body of Christ. A Christian congregation is also transfigured, since it is the Body of Christ. Our charge as a congregation is to preach the Good News, and to participate in the saving of God’s people, leading them out of the oppression of the world’s powers. To do this, we need to repent as a congregation. Our Lenten challenge as Seekers Church, this local expression of the body of Christ, is to rethink our life together. Our challenge is to develop insight, figuring out where Seekers Church may have gone wrong, and turning back to the right path as a congregation, letting go of the things that hold Seekers Church back from God’s path for us and letting God begin to heal them. In that way, we can move forward as a congregation on God’s path for this Church. Of what does our congregation need to be healed? Of what are we, as a congregation, guilty? What cleansing of us needs to be done?
Our spring congregational overnight at Wellspring on March 17-18 will provide an opportunity for us to practice repentance as a congregation. As Kate Cudlipp said last Sunday, it will be an opportunity to look at where we are as a congregation and at what we can be. We could describe it as an opportunity to experience a transfiguration of the community. The idea to use the overnight for this came out of a committee commissioned by the Stewards to assess how well our structure of the Servant Leadership Team and Stewards is functioning. The committee decided that the functioning of the structure might only be part of the issue and that we needed to take a thorough look at our congregational life. I suspect now that the hand of God was in it, that it was not just coincidental that we have this opportunity during Lent.
This overnight has the potential to be the first Seekers revival, but it will be a different kind of revival, with a facilitator who knows a lot about congregational life, rather than with an evangelist hammering at our sins to make us feel guilty. We are going to have the opportunity to give thanks as well as to challenge ourselves. I believe we have a lot to celebrate. We care deeply for each other, even as we acknowledge that we still have room to expand and deepen our caring. Our desire to learn how to live more fully as Christians is evident – almost every term nearly half of the congregation is taking a class in the School of Christian Living. Our domestic and international financial giving and our generosity in making this building available for community activities reflects our commitment to share the resources God has entrusted to us.
I invite you to individual and congregational repentance, with the promise of transfiguration for us as individuals and as a congregation.