A sermon preached on March 6th, 2011 – Girl Scout Sunday — based upon Matthew 17:1 – 9, the story of the transfiguration of Jesus.
My next door neighbor Bill died last week at the age of 88. Preparing to do the eulogy, his family gave me an overview of his life story. He grew up in an Roman Catholic Italian family in Newark. After fighting the Nazis in World War II, Bill ended up at Tulane University studying engineering, where he married a southern Baptist girl from Mississippi. Perhaps because the Roman Catholic Church wouldn’t perform their wedding because his bride wasn’t Catholic, he became disenchanted with Church.
Later, he put his three sons in scouting, and becoming a scout master. His son told me he did this to provide his children with a “moral center.” I was struck by this. It’s the sort of thing many people look for in the Church; Bill sought it in scouting.
Listening to the familiar story of the Transfiguration, I heard it in a new light – this being Girl Scout Sunday. It sounded this time like a scout master taking three of his scouts on an overnight camping trip. At the climax of the story, the moral center of life is revealed. The voice of God says of Jesus, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.”
Listen to the things Jesus says (and does) and you can’t go wrong. The first thing the disciples hear him say is, “Get up and do not be afraid.” He says this sort of thing repeatedly in the Gospel. When all is said and done, we don’t have to be afraid, our loving God of grace is with us in life and in death. Stand up and live your life boldly.
Along the way he had a lot to say about love; how we should love everyone, including even our enemies. Care for the least of these my brothers and sisters in this world. Don’t judge. Forgive; don’t let your heart get hard. Don’t get caught up in stuff. Love people, not things. Serve on another. The greatest are servants. Even those who are given much power in this world are called to be servants of their fellow human beings.
Keep listening to the things Jesus says and your will hold onto a moral center that will keep you from losing your soul.
A lot of unfortunate stuff has been said and done in the name of Christianity, because people forgot to listen to the man himself.
I have often noted that there are a lot of similarities between the story of Jesus’ transfiguration and the accounts of people who had Near Death Experiences, and other intensive experiences of the presence of the holy. Commonly there is an extraordinarily bright light that appears; here, Jesus himself begins to shine like the sun.
People often speak of meeting people who have preceded them in death; here, Moses and Elijah, both long since dead – ancestors in the faith – appear with Jesus and to the disciples.
Commonly the realm people enter into is so appealing that people don’t want to return to their bodies and to this life. Here, Peter seems inclined to stay up on top of the mountain forever – hence the offer to building the dwelling places.
And people who had experiences of such profundity are often very reluctant to talk about what happened to them, sensing on the one hand that there are no words to describe what they experienced, and concerned that people will think them simply crazy. Jesus counsels the disciples not to talk about what they have witnessed until later.
And finally, experience such as these are transforming, reducing the level of fear and promoting a lifestyle of love. Surely, this was the impact in time of what the disciples experienced on that mountaintop.
I am reading a fascinating book entitled Finger prints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality, by the NPR religion correspondent, Barbara Bradley Hagerty. She describes her personal quest to find out what science has to say about the viability of belief in God, and her conclusion that the brain is hardwired to be in communion with God. She describes how she was raised a Christian Scientist by her family, and that although she felt compelled to turn away with from their practice of going without the assistance of doctors, she nonetheless was deeply affected by her roots.
She describes how her mother came across an account that Barbara’s grandmother had written down on a yellow undated paper of a time when at the age of 41 she became deathly ill. Her daughter, Barbara’s mother was away at school, and “when she arrived at Granny’s bedside, she found her mother slipping in and out of consciousness. Granny was attended by two Christian Science practitioners and a medically trained Christian science nurse. They kept a fierce prayer vigil for nearly three days, but on Saturday morning, Granny ‘slipped out of this world and moved through a brief space of darkness,’ as she would later write, in a written testimony that my mother found after Granny’s death. According to the people by her bedside, ‘the eyes did not close but a film closed over them and all activities ceased.’
“But not for Granny. Granny was on the move. ‘I had passed through the portal called death,’ she wrote. ‘There was no fear and no anxiety. I seemed to be walking or going some place. I was conscious of the fact that I had left the world and those dear to me just as much as if you walked out of a room and closed the door behind you. After walking for a time, the light seemed to breaking through and everything seemed to be getting much lighter when suddenly a light that I had never seen anything like before broke before me, and I was completely surrounded by a brilliancy that blinded me, so that I could hardly see. A voice spoke to me and said, ‘Go back, you are needed there.’ As a soldier obeys a command spoken to him without question, so I obeyed this command.’
“An hour passed, and the friends next to Granny’s bed continued to hold vigil, unaware of Granny’s subterranean travels. Suddenly, “to the astonishment of them both, I opened my eyes wide” and began to speak.
“’I heard my own voice talking, and this is what was said as they took it down… ‘It is wonderful.’ ‘It is beautiful.’ ‘The darkness is all gone, there just isn’t any more darkness at all.’ ‘There is not death. You don’t have to die.’ Turning to the (friends,) I said, ‘You never have to be afraid again.’”
“At that moment, Granny threw off the covers. ‘I’m hot!’ she declared, and rose from the bed, brusher her teeth, and asked for some breakfast.” (pp. 216-7)
In a few moments we will share in hold communion. When we receive the bread and the cup, we ascend, once more, that holy mountain with Jesus. Transfigured, we obey the command of Jesus to return to the world as a servant, emboldened by what we have glimpsed.