Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Change is Good

Matthew 17:1-9
1 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4 Then Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." 5 While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!" 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, "Get up and do not be afraid." 8 And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. 9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, "Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead."

Can you imagine being on that mountaintop and seeing your teacher suddenly transfigured? “his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” And then to have two of the greatest leaders of your religion appear. “Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.” Naturally, you would offer to get them whatever you could to make them comfortable. Um – hey, we can get you some tents so you can be sheltered from the night cold. And then you hear God’s voice – at least, you hear a voice speaking from behind a bright cloud. Who else could it be but God? Of course they were overcome by fear! It’s pretty easy to see that would be more than happy to comply when Jesus said “Don’t tell anyone.” They may not have even registered the “until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead” part until much later.

Transfigured and meeting with Moses and Elijah. Wow. Moses. Chosen by God to help the Hebrews escape from their slavery in Egypt. With God’s direction and help he performed wonders – his staff turned into a snake, the sea was parted, the rock split and produced sweet water. He returned the Hebrews to worship of the One God, Yahweh, after generations of worshipping idols and false gods. He brought them the Law and he led them back to the land God had promised to Abraham.

And Elijah. The last of the priests of Yahweh in a time of great persecution under King Ahaz and Queen Jezebel. Chosen by God to lead the Hebrews back to his worship. With God’s direction he performed wonders – lit the sacrificial fire when it was completely water soaked just by asking God to do so after the 400 priests of Baal had been unable to light their own. Brought the widow’s son back to life. Blessed her containers of flour and oil so they would never get empty. Was instrumental in the overthrow and death of the persecutors and the liberation of the people. Returned the Hebrews to the worship of the One God, Yahweh, after generations of their kings had turned away from God.

Moses and Elijah transformed the people of Israel. Both of these great leaders liberated their people from actual slavery and from the worship of false gods. Both brought their people back to the worship of the One God, Yahweh, after generations of following false gods. They were great prophets and miracle workers and Jesus is standing in their company. Wow. I can’t even imagine what that must have been like for the disciples who were present that night. And I’m sure they talked about it among themselves, wondering just what this really meant. It surely made them more certain than ever that Jesus was the promised messiah. I wonder though, if they thought about what false gods Jesus might have been leading the people away from.

We know, but then, we have the advantage of nearly 2,000 of scholars and theologians figuring it out for us. When right adherence to the law became more important than the God who gave the law it became a false God. When perfect performance of ritual became more important than the God those rituals were designed to worship, the ritual became a false god. Jesus liberated the people from slavery to and worship of book and ritual, away from the false belief that they were the only ones God loved. Jesus was leading the people away from the false god of law and ritual and back to worship of the One God, Yahweh.

As many of you know I spent a lot of time with other clergy folks this week. Monday was my quarterly clergy renewal day at Disneyland with two other clergywomen. Wednesday I had lunch with Disciples clergy from Pomona, Hemet, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ontario. Both groups were talking about folks who think being Christian is just about showing up on Sunday morning. We know that this is the mindset that efforts like New Beginnings and New Church and all the very popular “missional church” programs are trying to eliminate. We complained about people who think they’re supposed to be entertained at worship which causes the folks planning and leading the service to hope that a little “edu-tainment” will be taking place. And we followed that conversation with a conversation about how to make Sunday worship more attractive, how to make Powerpoint presentations more interesting and how to dress up the outside of the building so more people will want to come inside. Does anyone else see the irony in the order of these topics?

It is good when worship can be uplifting and moving and emotionally satisfying. When we leave saying “I really felt spirit filled today.” As long as we understand that what lifts you up might not do anything for me or for the person in the next pew. And it’s important to understand that there is no special attraction to trying a different style of worship just because it works someplace else. Sometimes it feels like we worship the act of worship, the rituals and traditions and music, rather than worshipping God.

What we’re supposed to be doing here is not having a great emotionally uplifting experience, although that is always a plus. What is supposed to be happening here is 1) GOD is worshipped with all our devotion and 2) we are transformed. Not just made to feel good for the moment, but made to be different, to behave differently. To go out from this place as new people, each one of us priest and missionary to the world.

At this time of year in places like New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro we have a really graphic example of what our transformation could look like. Right now it is Mardi Gras, it is time for Carnivale! Mardi Gras and Carnivale celebrations are time to engage in being self-indulgent. It is a time when to eat, drink and be merry is expected, even condoned by the church in those places. Floats and dancers with feathery, sparkly costumes fill the streets. There are feasts and parties. The bars are filled with local celebrants and tourists. But when the church bells toll midnight on Tuesday things change immediately! The beads and masks are put away – the streets are transformed from a place to party to a place of penance. At midnight the partiers leave and the penitents come out - in many cases they are the very same people. The dancers put away their costumes, the drinkers put away their glasses, and they parade the streets barefoot and praying. Some carry crosses. Some whip themselves until their backs and legs are bloody. Some simply walk and pray, asking God’s forgiveness for the sins they have committed throughout the past year. At dawn they will congregate at the churches, accepting their ashes. Committing themselves to atonement and change in year to come.

Lent is a time for soul searching and transformation. It is the time when candidates for baptism looked within themselves for character flaws, for sins they regularly committed without even realizing they were doing wrong.

And let us be clear about what baptism is about. It is not a miraculous bath that changes someone’s character. It is not that ritual without which one cannot get into heaven. It is an act of commitment on the part of the candidate to change, to follow Christ, to devote his life to being the person God created him to be.

Even if we personally were not baptized at Easter, Lent is still a time to revisit that time of preparation for our own baptism. It is a time to give up luxuries and add spiritual practices. It is a time to get to know the person we are and strive to become the person God wants us to be. It is a time to become new in Christ, even as we did at our baptisms. It is time to prepare ourselves again even as we did for our baptism, with soul searching and coming to understand just exactly what we are giving up to be Christian. Not just chocolate or fast food or Kindle books. But self-indulgence of all kinds, anger, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, gluttony. It is a time to ask God to help us replace those sins with virtues – replacing greed with generosity, gluttony with moderation, pride with humility, and so on.

Lent is a time to put aside a bit of time every day to spend in introspection, seeking those sins and character flaws and asking God to transform us, to replace them with something better, more Christlike. It is a time when we engage even more than usual in prayer and acts of giving. We may even find a new spiritual practice, some way to focus our minds and hearts on God and on our prayer life. For example, while on Sabbath Leave I discovered coloring books filled with mandalas similar to the one above titled Transfiguration. The act of coloring while focusing the meaning on the design brought calm and healing to my heart. Lent is a time to seek change, for change is good. As we each work to change ourselves, we also change the people we touch and the world around us, bringing them closer to God’s kingdom of love and justice.

God said, “This is my Son, my beloved. With him I am well pleased, listen to him!” So let us do what he says. Let us be changed by his words even as he is changed on this mountaintop. Let us ask him to transform us.

No comments: