Monday, March 07, 2011

Razzle Dazzle: Sermon On Matthew 17:1-9

Here is the sermon I preached yesterday, Transfiguration Sunday 2011. It was well-received by the congregation. If I can figure out how to create a "podcast" of the audio recording, I will post that as well. If I can get the video recording, I'll also post that. But for now, here's the transcript!

Let us pray. Gracious God, in all that we say and do, may the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, oh Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

The mountain. The dazzling white clothes. The appearance of Moses and Elijah. Peter’s misguided offer to build three dwelling places. The voice from the sky. For those of you who have been attending church for at least a few years, this story is probably starting to become pretty familiar. The story of Jesus’ transfiguration on the cusp of his journey to Jerusalem and the events that will ultimately lead to his death appears every year on the Sunday before Lent begins. In our church, the texts for each Sunday are chosen following the Revised Common Lectionary. It’s a three-year cycle through the Scriptures and generally each Sunday there is scheduled a reading from the Old Testament, a Psalm, a reading from the Epistles—which are the letters in the New Testament—and a selection from one of the four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. John is kind of the oddball Gospel, so each year—labeled A, B, or C—works through a good chunk of one of the other three, which are called the Synoptic Gospels, and they include many of the same stories. This year, year A, which began with Advent, we’re working our way through Matthew. Now, in our worship services, we usually only read two pieces of scripture, so it’s possible that even if you’ve been coming to this church for quite a few years, you haven’t heard this text read every time, if the preacher hasn’t chosen it from the four scheduled texts. But it is scheduled, every year—it’s one of the stories that is included in all three of the Synoptic Gospels, so depending on the lectionary, we read either Mark’s, Matthew’s, or Luke’s version, which all vary slightly from each other, but basically share the same core story.

As a story that comes around every year, well, it can get a little stale. I’m still very early in my career, and I don’t preach every Sunday, so this hasn’t really happened to me yet, but at some point you can look at a text and wonder what else there is to preach. It’s all been said. In some ways, that’s always true. These texts are thousands of years old; odds are whatever spin or insight or interpretation we come up with, it’s been thought of before. But. God is still speaking, right? Of course, even that UCC catch phrase came from something someone else said: John Robinson, sending forth our spiritual forebears from Europe to the New World in 1620. He said, “There is yet more light and truth to break forth from God’s holy word.” God is still speaking.

Most sermons and studies and commentaries on the Transfiguration focus on one of two main areas. They’re either looking at what happened on the mountain—the transfiguration itself, Peter’s construction ideas, the voice from above, the appearance of the two men—or they focus on what happens after the mountain—where the Gospel story goes, or where we go and what we do after a “mountaintop” experience. All of these are perfectly valid, perfectly interesting, perfectly enriching to our spiritual lives and understanding of the Bible and how we read it today.

But. How do we get there? What comes before the razzle dazzle of transfiguration, before our journey down the mountain and back into life? How do we get up the mountain, how do we get to a point where we, too, can experience this overwhelmingly holy ecstatic moment that will leave us changed? The same way we get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice.

We know that we cannot pick up a cello one day and head to Carnegie Hall expecting to be able to play flawlessly. We know that we cannot pick up a French-English dictionary one morning and head to Paris that night speaking fluently. We know that we cannot reach for a basketball, computer, spatula, or car keys out of the blue and be able to hit the half-court shot, make a program do everything it’s supposed to, whip up a delicacy, or drive like Mario Andretti. We know that it takes time and effort and doing things over and over and over again to do it right and do it well. Yet, somehow we often think that the first time we talk to God in prayer or open a Bible, something big is supposed to happen. We want that mountaintop. We want to be transformed by God. And how many of us tried once and gave up? And then maybe a few months or years later, tried again. I’ll admit it. I’m often one of those people. I want to be able to pray to God and be transformed, have my whole outlook changed, be tempted by no sin. Poof! I want to open my Bible and see exactly the words I need to hear in that moment. Clear message from above! I want to walk into a worship space once and be profoundly and irrevocably moved by the Holy Spirit. Razzle dazzle me, God! Show me what you can do!

But. Praying is sometimes tedious, and my mind wanders. But. Reading the Bible is sometimes boring, and my mind wanders. But. Worship sometimes just doesn’t do it for me and I don’t like the hymns and the scripture readings are too complicated to understand and the sermon is ho-hum and why is this service so long, and my mind wanders.

Doesn’t work. No razzle dazzle transfiguration for me. I give up.

Why is it that we know that mastering pretty much anything else in our lives takes time, patience and lots and lots of practice? How many of us took piano lessons or had kids who took piano lessons and hated those boring exercises you start with? I wanted to sit down and play Für Elise! Teach me that! But good teachers know that there are steps to mastery, and that by doing over and over that which is sometimes tedious and boring and not at all what we’re hoping for, something happens.

I recently started reading The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. This is a classic book based on a workshop that she taught on how to access our innate creativity. She brings a spiritual component to it, emphasizing that our Creator God, created us in God’s image, therefore created us as creators. It’s not just for artists. The book is set-up like a 12-week class with exercises and tasks to complete each week. The foundation of it all is the morning pages. Every morning, you are to get up and write—longhand, no computers—three pages. No matter the topic, three pages. Even if you complain about how you don’t want to write and have nothing to say over and over until you fill up three pages, three pages.

The point is that if you only write when you think you have something to say, you’ll hardly ever write. And if you expect that every time you write you’ll come to some major epiphany, you’ll never write because you’ll always be disappointed. But if you write every day, sometimes, you’ll get epiphanies. If you write every day you prepare a place to welcome any light to break through.

It’s like growing a garden. You don’t throw a seed into the grass and expect prize-winning tomatoes. You have to do the work to prepare the soil and nourish the plant and keep the weeds and bugs away. Most days, it’s boring and tedious and not at all uplifting. But then one day there’s a flower. And after some more weeding and watering and just plain staring at the plant every morning to see if something’s changed, a little green sphere appears, and over time, with mostly just unexciting work, the tomato grows and ripens and then, and only then, do you get that absolutely heavenly experience of biting into a sun-warmed fresh tomato that you’ve grown.

It’s the same with our faith. It takes practice and work. Praying every day, even when it’s tedious and our mind wanders and we have nothing to say. Reading the Bible regularly, even when it’s complicated and boring and makes no sense. Attending worship regularly, even when not every service speaks to you. Those spiritual practices are what build the foundation and prepare us for those holy, mountaintop, transfiguration moments of pure grace. If we haven’t done the preparation, we can’t expect anything to happen. If there’s no fertile ground, the tomatoes won’t grow. If we haven’t practiced our scales, we can’t play Für Elise.

Lent is the perfect opportunity to learn how to begin or improve our practices. It’s a time of preparation—a time to lay down a foundation to be ready for the razzle dazzle of Easter. Six weeks to practice the scales, refine the jump shots, and roto-till the ground of our faith. I encourage you to pick ONE thing to practice during Lent, whether it’s praying every morning, reading a chapter of the Bible, giving thanks before eating, following our “green” Lenten calendar, picking a new hymn to learn every week, giving $2 to a different charity every day…whatever. But ONE thing. Don’t overwhelm yourself trying to play Für Elise on Ash Wednesday, because you’ll never make it to Easter. And whatever that thing is, try to do it every day. If you miss one day, pick right back up where you left off. But the every day practice will allow that light and truth to break through, will create a habit, will step by step bring us up the mountain closer to God, the razzle dazzle of Christ’s resurrection on Easter, and beyond.

Let us pray: Razzle Dazzle God, teach us how to practice our faith, every day, and help us to keep going even when it’s tedious, boring, and we just plain don’t feel like it, so that we may better prepare our hearts to be moved by you. Amen.

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