Sermon, February 27, 2022
Rev. Jessica Palys - KCUCC
I had a lot of family in town this weekend - my stepmom, 2 sisters with their partners and my two youngest nieces; Hadley Rae who is almost 2 years old, and Mabel Mae Rose who is three and a half. And because they were here, I had the pleasure of watching Disney’s Encanto during some of our ‘nap time’. If you're not someone who voluntarily watches Disney animated films, (as I am not) - this one may be worth looking into. The story is set in a Columbian village with a family that once had to flee their homeland but have become a driving force in building their village through their magical gifts. This film is a fascinating departure from the usual Disney storyline - it actually has no villain but still pulls off a great moral. I don't want to give away too much from the plot if you haven’t seen it, but the heroine, who is the typical underdog throughout the film, has what I think is the unique ability to face the truth about her family. She is willing to pursue it, and absorb it, and to sit in the tension that truth sometimes brings with it. And sometimes I think that can be a special gift.
For the last 6 weeks of Epiphany, we’ve been doing a non-traditional worship service that included 8 or 10 minutes of small group discussion on certain topics that we have in common in our congregational life. We talked about things like our endowment, our ability to forgive, our epiphanies, the saints of the church that have helped shape our history and guide our future; and where we're feeling called as a congregation, as well as and the things we want to work on. Some of these questions were sparked by topics in my discussion questions touched on topics that came up in my one to one conversations, some were just my curiosity, some were shots in the dark. I appreciate your willingness to engage in this exercises, as I think they were an important tool to help surface some of the undercurrents in our congregation - to recognize patterns or problems; and identify potential common ground for change.
Because, if we can’t name our own issues, how do we expect to fix them?
The season of Epiphany is about revelation, the revealing and unveiling the character and true nature of Jesus. Each scripture passage reveals a little more about how he understood himself, how those around him came to see his presence, and how his presence and teaching begin to reveal the kingdom of God. And so, in that vein I hope our discussions helped reveal a bit more about how we at KCUCC understand ourselves, how we ourselves and those around us see us, and how we might be called to build up the Kingdom of God here. They might not all have been completely comfortable conversations, and some were probably more productive and valuable than others, but, like the heroine in Encanto - I think it's important that we listen to and talk about hidden truths, even when uncomfortable. Just like when we develop our own talents and skills, the challenges and goals for organizational bodies like our congregation have to be named and acknowledged in order to plan to surmount them.
But what is transfiguration Sunday? Transfiguration Sunday is considered one of the 5 pivotal moments in Jesus life - the others being Baptism, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension. And for us, Transfiguration Sunday functions as a pivot the church calendar, from the season Epiphany to the final revelation of Jesus's nature, to the beginning of when his face towards Jerusalem; when we pivot from the season of revelations to enter into a period of time when we are to reflect on our own connection to God - in Lent.
But what is transfigured on this Sunday? It's an unheralded part of the church calendar where we get a glimpse of Jesus transformed into his Godly divine nature alongside the most important figures in the Hebrew Bible - Moses and Elijah. In some ways, it is the final reveal; Jesus’ crowd of disciples, and us readers as we go along for the journey, have heard others like Simeon and Anna testify to the significance of Jesus. We have been present as he reveals the scriptures to those much more learned in the temple. As the crowd of followers, we as readers see through their eyes the miraculous acts that Jesus performs in their midst. And we hear the teachings where Jesus tries to reveal the Kingdom of God to those who follow him. And yet, despite all that, it is this - this vision, this impossibility, this heavenly glow on the face of Jesus that finally completes the revelation about who Jesus is - someone worthy of being in the company of God’s holiest men. And finally, that voice from heaven who echoes the words at Jesus’ baptism; this is my son, my Chosen. LISTEN to Him!” And they finally understood they were in proximity to greatness, they were near someone who was truly divine. And, once their eyes were finally opened, their understanding complete, their first instinct was … to keep it safe - to house it, to enclose it, in a temple. Peter immediately tells Jesus he wants to build him a dwelling where he can stay with Moses and Elijah up on the mountaintop.
Isn’t that really the human tendency? How often do we do exactly what Peter is thinking? Immediately after the revelation that we’ve found something wonderful, something great, something miraculous - to look for a way to hold onto that moment, to safeguard that specialness, to protect that perfection? How can we enshrine it to make sure that we can always come near to admire this greatness, this inspiration, this significance? How can we establish it and preserve it in order to share it? How can we install it as someone or something to admire, to follow, to worship? These days we might try to capture it in a selfie or a quick group photo. Maybe we plan to make sure we come back to that same family vacation spot every year to try to recreate and recapture the beauty of the day. Or to keep that same routine at work that made that perfect quarter of profits. Make sure we never lose that head coach, or that star player, because they must be responsible for the magic winning streak.
I think the same thing happened to churches in America. For a time, back in the mid 20th Century, church membership was exploding. Churches would fill as fast as you could build them - as the country expanded into the suburbs after the 2nd World War, new churches were founded all around the country, the people craved inspiration and hope, the pews filled, the congregations flourished. And the leaders of these places thought, “We’ve found it. We’ve got the recipe for greatness. We’re spreading the message of God. We must protect it at all costs and never change.” And they spent all their time working to keep the shrine going.
But here’s the thing - you can never freeze a moment. You can’t capture inspiration, you can’t cage greatness, you can’t manufacture perfection. We can’t keep our heroes perfect. We can’t recreate the perfect family outing. We can’t always preserve the secret to our successes. And the churches couldn’t preserve their status - because society changed around them. The needs of the people changed. The voices of the culture changed and not all the churches changed with them. Not all the heroes of our culture remained heroes. Not all successes remained viable. And very few families stay exactly the same over time.
We as humans have a tendency to build dwellings around our inspirations - to build walls and cages and locks to hold them in place and keep them in a place of honor. It’s the human tendency to build up what works, to freeze what’s special, to idolize that which we admire. And we should always hold those special moments close to our hearts. But when we become transfixed on our heroes with stars in our eyes, we become paralyzed by our memories instead of facing the future. The drawback to building too many structures around our favorite moments, our most admired people, our most successful methods is that sometimes things change and we miss it.
Jesus, glorified on that mountaintop, will always be Jesus - but he rarely stands still.
My favorite part of transfiguration Sunday is is this: Jesus doesn't stay on the mountain. When Peter suggests the dwelling to Jesus, all aglow, I imagine Jesus looked at him with a very strange expression on his face, which said, ‘We don't have time to sit around on a mountaintop, talking about how great we are! We have work to do!’ The very next day, Jesus goes down the mountain and back into the crowds of people, back to the masses, back to those who are ill and troubled and in need of his presence. He goes back to the people and begins to heal them and love them and teach them about the Kingdom of God.
When Jesus is on the mountain, our tendency is to ensconce him there. But Jesus comes down to deal with the sick, the needy, and the demons. Jesus comes down the mountain, where he communes with God, and returns to the lowly earth to deal with the real messy stuff of living. There he listens to the needs of the people, the father who needs his boy healed from a demon, the exasperation of the disciples who can’t do it alone, the cries of those who have been marginalized from community. And he acts. He doesn’t remain high upon the mountain, removed from the people. Rather, Jesus shows us who he is - reveals to us the true nature of Godliness by returning to the people. And Jesus shows us how to deal with it - how to name it, how to act on it.
So where’s the transfiguration? Was it in Jesus, who was transfigured - illumined, really - to glow like the Hebrew messengers and saints? Was it in the boy, who has been cleansed of the demon? Or was it - maybe, just maybe - was it the disciples? Those who saw, who were amazed, and still, who followed - was it them who were transformed and transfigured to see what was possible, not only for Jesus, but for all humanity? Was it those disciples who found the otherworldly courage in their confirmation - their acceptance of the knowledge (finally) that indeed, this teacher they followed held the divine within? Was it because they realized that the glory of God’s presence and the pain of a broken world cannot be separated - but rather the light that sets the world aglow exists to heal that broken world? Not to be enshrined upon a mountain for all to look upon and worship - but to get to work.
There's a whole movement afoot in this country right now stop us from facing the demons in our history. To stop us from talking about the fact that we're flawed as humans, that we’re flawed as white people, that we’re flawed as Christians and we are flawed as a country - because we're flawed as individuals. Any institution that comes from humans is naturally flawed because humans are naturally flawed. But to ignore those flaws, to avoid those weaknesses, is to enshrine not only the good but also the bad. To silence the uncomfortable truths is to freeze society in a portrait that never changes - and never moves forward. That is not the way to live, that is not the way of God, and that is not the way of Jesus. Jesus doesn’t sit still - he comes down the mountain to deal with the messiness of life. Just because we as a people, as a race, as a country - or even as a church - have had a messy history doesn't mean we quit trying and obviously it doesn't mean we quit learning from that history. So although those forces that would like to silence the critical voice, would prefer to silence the dissent by ignoring it, I take comfort that we are not like that. And this church is not like that. We're going to become comfortable naming and facing the flaws in us because that's the way we get better at fixing them. Just like, as individuals, we have to name our weaknesses and goals to move forward on them, a society that's willing to name its demons the society that is willing to work on itself. And a church that is not afraid to engage in uncomfortable conversations is a church that will be much stronger on the other side. It's a church that will be transfigured and transformed by the strength it takes to face all of our own truths.
Let’s be amazed by the illumination of Jesus, and follow him down to the mountain to face the people, the flaws, and listen for where we can change or make change. Like the heroine of Encanto, let us become comfortable talking about the truths of our family. Let’s be transfigured and be part of the transformation. May it be so. Amen.