“Being Beloved,” February 23, 2020, Rev. Daniel Simons

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Sermon preached by the Reverend Daniel Simons
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
Transfiguration Sunday
Matthew 17:1-9

Our lives, most day, are very ordinary. We get up, take care of the children, the pets, the bills. Time is always tight, sometimes money is. We try to make a mark. Sometimes we wonder if we make a difference.

But then there are moments in our lives that come unexpectedly, unplanned, unbidden, sometimes even unwelcome, and they knock us a little off center, or a lot, and they reveal something new to us about who we really are and what this is all about.

Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain is that kind of moment. Like almost all the stories in scripture, it was already a sermon by the time it got written down — told over and over for at least 50 years before it was recorded.

So it is dense with details that mattered a lot to the early church. Those stories symbolically described the experience the early believers were having of Jesus and of themselves as they gathered week by week around the Eucharist.

What we are doing here is not so different from what they were doing, and there is still deep wisdom in these “deep water” texts, like the one last week, and this ultimate Epiphany story, which still speak to the core wounds and hopes of our own time.

So let’s notice some of those details of this sermon:

First, so that we aren’t asking the red herring question ‘Did it really happen this way?’ this event is described up front as a “vision” — it’s about insight, inner transfiguration, more than outer.  Vision is not hallucination but clarity.  Our phrase “mountaintop experience” references this story, along with Moses’ encounter on Mt. Sinai.

Here the air is thin, and so is the veil between spiritual and material worlds. There is no wifi, and fewer distractions. What the ordinary hides the mountaintop reveals.

Second, the future leaders of the Jesus movement are at this core event: Peter the rock, and the brother-duo who are called the ‘Sons of Thunder,’ James and John. It’s not so much hierarchical; it is seismic. This is the epicenter of something big that will radiate out through the whole Christian community.

Then, the two figures who appear with Jesus represent the dual foundations of Jewish religion: the Law and the Prophets in their greatest pinnacles: Moses and Elijah. Jesus is in conversation with them. Everything is coming to fulfillment, Matthew’s favorite word to describe what Jesus is doing.

This moment holds too many other details to unpack now, but most important, and at the center of it all , is the Voice. Pure Presence, beyond naming. Uncreated. It’s the same voice that spoke to Moses on Sinai, the same “still, small voice” or “sound of sheer silence” that spoke to Elijah on the same mountain. Now it speaks out of the bright cloud: This is my Beloved. Listen to him. 

And so that we can’t miss the point, this are the same exact details: the cloud, the voice, and the message that overshadowed Jesus at his baptism. You are my beloved.  

_____

My husband Javier is teaching this month in Barcelona. This past week his aunt has been actively dying. She made that transition a couple of days ago.  Javier had the week off, and he spent many hours with her, as did his siblings and cousins and parents. Every day Javier and I FaceTime, and so I’ve gotten to visit with Auntie Conchita, and to watch and hear her last days unfold from her hospital bed.

Auntie Conchita lived pretty much all her life in that way typical of so many of her generation: full of conventional precautionary advice, premonitions and superstitions and dogmatic opinions — It’s not an exaggeration to say that she was a fearful person.

But there in her hospital bed, an interesting thing happened. As Javier and the family very intentionally flooded her with love and support, she began to open up in a new way. Her Spanish Catholic guilt began to melt until she started to say, “You know, I AM loved! And you know, I AM a good person, and when I haven’t been it’s been weakness, not malicious intent. I have had a good life!”

Some members of the immediate family at first didn’t want to discuss her imminent death with her, but at last when they did, she said, “I know what is happening. I am at peace. I feel so loved.”

She began to glow with a kind of transparency that I could even see through my iPhone. And the whole family has been talking since her death about the gift she gave them in her dying.

You are my Beloved.
It is a message that transfigures.

I have come to believe that the two core wounds in our world, or at least in the West in these past couple of centuries is:

You do not belong. And:
You are not enough.

Those messages hit us in a hundred different ways, until they get inside our heads and start sounding like our parents, our own voice, or even God’s voice.

When we don’t get the message early on that we are fully loved, we get lost, we get addicted, we get angry and repressed, we get sad, we have to dominate and win at life, we ruin pretty much everything and add a lot more suffering to the world.

But there is always this other Voice that is speaking to us, when we get quiet, or when we hit rock bottom, or when we stop pretending we are enough — it is Presence, Being itself, what we so inadequately call God. You are my Beloved.

When we hear those words, spoken to us, we find a place to stand in this world.
You belong; you are enough. 

Jesus knew this. Maybe from his baptism, maybe from way before. That’s what made him so followable. That is what gave him his power, his full awareness of his being beloved, as everyone is.

It wasn’t Jesus who was transfigured, it was his disciples awareness that was transfigured for a moment, to see what was true about him, and of course them, though they couldn’t see that yet. (that would come with the apostle Paul, when he starts to talk about the church as the transfigured body of Christ).

_____

There’s one more important detail in this story: it’s the way it starts and ends.

It starts “Six days later, ” later than what? Immediately before this is a conversation where Jesus starts saying that it is inevitable that he will be killed in Jerusalem for his message. He knows that it’s too threatening to the domination systems around him to proclaim radical freedom of belovedness for everyone without consequence.

He’s pointing to this other mountain up ahead, Golgotha, and that story will be the identical inverse of this one: Jesus will be raised up between two others. A cloud will blot out the sun. A voice will sound: Jesus wailing: ‘Why have you forsaken me?

This mountaintop experience is set in a dark times, getting darker.

But look at the ending:
“And he told them not to tell anyone about the vision until after the Son of Man had been raised from the dead.” This last line makes no sense in the story, but it makes perfect sense as a sermon. In fact, this whole Transfiguration story is placed here as a huge spoiler to that dark story that lies ahead, so that we understand how to read the crucifixion when we get to it.

This is its meaning: The cross is NOT God’s punishment or payment for sin; it is God’s solidarity with God’s beloved. God who protects us from nothing yet accompanies us in everything. It is a Love that is stronger than death.

When we know that, at our core, we can go through anything. Into your hands I commend my spirit. Jesus says at the very end. It his his final response to what he heard at the beginning:
You are my Beloved.
________

I like to give invitational homework in my sermons. So as we come to the cusp of Lent, here’s something you might do in the coming days:

  1. Listen to the stories we are going to hear week by week:
    and ask this question: if this was a sermon or an oracle, what new detail might I notice? 
  2. Find little moments in the ordinary of your life to step out, get up the mountain, have a cup of coffee, sit close to nature, and just listen for the voice of Presence, saying to you:

You are enough.
You belong.
You are my Beloved.

 

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