Last Sunday after the Epiphany/February 14, 2010

St. John's Episcopal Church, Essex, NY

Everything Must Change*

Exodus 34:29-35
Psalm 99
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Luke 9:28-36

A Sermon offered by Katharine M. Preston

In the summer of 1974 I took a trip to Alaska. The most anticipated part of the trip was a visit to the 6.1 million acre park that surrounds Mount McKinley, Denali, the "High One", in the Athabascan native language.

As my sister, who was living in Alaska at the time, drove us north from Anchorage toward the park, she suggested I watch for the mountain. Denali is cloud-covered most of the time, and to see the mountain at all is a bit of a miracle. With the road winding through the tall boreal forests, you need to keep your eyes peeled.

I leaned forward, peering intently through the windshield as she drove us northward. I could see nothing, and after a while, became tired with the effort. Besides, there was a huge cloudbank obscuring most of the sky ahead. I figured a glimpse of the mountain was not to be had that day. Disappointed, I sat back in my seat.

And then, higher, massively higher, way above the cloud bank where I had been looking, I saw the towering summit of Denali, her snows dazzling white, shimmering in the sunlight against the blue sky.

Sometimes, we experience a moment of truth, a revelation, realizing we have gravely underestimated the significance of something - a mountain, a person, a situation.

Peter and James and John thought they understood the significance of the man they followed, until that day up on the mountain, where Jesus was transfigured and "certified" by God. According to Luke, shortly before this episode on the mountain, Peter had finally figured out that Jesus was the Messiah foretold by the prophets. But this dazzling robe stuff, this unnerving change in the appearance of Jesus' face and body, throws poor Peter into a bit of a tizzy. He may remember scripture saying that Moses' face was shining when he came down from the mountain after talking to God, as we, too, heard in the reading from Exodus today. And just as Peter is trying to digest all this, Moses himself appears, with Elijah, alongside Jesus. Peter, in his usual bumbling manner, feels he needs to ... to ... do something in the presence of all this divinity. Hoping to capture and somehow maintain the sanctity of the gathering, he offers to build "dwellings" or "booths", essentially shrines, one for each of the luminescent persons in front of him.

Poor Peter! He is not quite getting it yet. A cloud, signifying the presence of God, seems to obscure the situation even further. But then, higher, much higher above the cloudbank of Peter's foggy understanding, God's revelation: Jesus is much more than just another prophet. Jesus is even more than the Messiah as understood in the Jewish tradition. "This is my Son', says God, 'my Chosen. Listen to him."

Brian McLaren, a rather unorthodox evangelical preacher, has written a number of very successful books. In one, he describes an experience in Rwanda, at a conference of Tutsi and Hutu Christians exploring the ramifications of conflicting tribes moving beyond colonial rule. After participating in some deep discussions with tribal members about the essential message of Jesus in that particular context, he notices one woman, sitting stock still, silent. He asks if she is okay. She responds:

I am okay, but I am shaken up. I don't know if anyone else here sees it, but I do. I see it. Today, for the first time, I see what Jesus meant by the kingdom of God. I see that it is about changing this world, not just escaping it and retreating into our churches. If Jesus' message of the kingdom of God is true, then everything must change.
(p. 23, Everything Must Change, by Brian McLaren.)

Sometimes, we experience a revelation, realizing we have gravely underestimated the significance of something.

As most of you know, I have been preaching for some time about how people of faith must embrace a creation-caring, social-justice-affirming view of the whole planet. Global climate change, in particular, has been a primary concern. But I also care about healthcare, Haiti, fresh food production in the Champlain Valley, and wars. I have been accused of being idealistic, but when I read the statement by the woman in Rwanda in McLaren's book, "If Jesus' message about the Kingdom of God is true, than everything must change, and then some of McLaren's own reaction to that statement, I realized that my gaze, my imagination, has not been high enough, has underestimated the significance of the challenge facing us, in two ways:

First – its magnitude: Everything must change.

All of these issues global climate change, war, food, health are interconnected. The stressed out planet is, in effect telling us this, and everything must change. The ecologically and financially unsustainable economic system; the morally deplorable inequities - ultra- rich and extremely poor - of our social systems; the frightening security issues that are the predictable results of these inequities: all are indicating the same thing. How we live our lives must fundamentally change.

It is all quite frightening and overwhelming. Makes you think seriously about hiding away in your home or church deep in northern New York and hoping that no one will notice you.

But there was a second way that I had underestimated the significance of the challenge facing us today:

That it was somehow unique. Different than ever before. More disheartening, more impossible.

The message? About everything needing to change? This is essentially the same thing that Jesus was saying to the people of his time, in his place.

Listen: "The first will be last and the last, first." "Love your enemies like your own soul." "Blessed are the poor, for they shall inherit the kingdom of God." "When someone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other one as well." "If you have money, don't lend it at interest. Rather, give it to someone from whom you won't get it back." (that last – from the Gospel of Thomas.)

These quotes roll easily off our tongues today – but think about it: Jesus was calling for massive social transformation. Transformation equally as radical as what is called for today.

Then: Roman occupiers, corrupt temple officials, rich and immoral tax collectors. Now: partisan politics, excessive consumption and rich and immoral corporations. The details are different but I am not sure that the depth of the transformation needed is any less now than it was then. Everything must change. Now, why does it make me feel better to realize the transformations called for today are no less radical than those called for in Jesus time? I dunno. But somehow, I feel Jesus closer by my side – not on my side, by my side.

If Jesus' message of the kingdom of God is true, then everything must change.

Understand: We don't have to do anything. God will love us even if we don't recycle and don't buy Fair Trade coffee. Jesus loved the rich man even as he turned away – unable to follow.

But the grace of it all is that we have the freedom to do something, to be participants in the transformation. Paul reminds us in the reading from Corinthians today: "Now the Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom." The freedom to make choices about where you put your priorities: within your heart, about how you live, how you serve God.

The cloudy veil is lifting. God and Jesus are right there beside us, transfigured. Let us try not to get in a tizzy, like Peter, missing the point. Building booths to maintain the status quo won't help. There is a lot to do if God's creation is to be enjoyed in the manner intended for all people and creatures, for more than just a lucky few.

Each clear morning, I am blessed with a view of the Adirondack Mountains, blushing as the sun, rising above the Green Mountains to the east, catches them still asleep. The peaks are transfigured by the rays, once again dazzling my imagination. If the mountains can dazzle, day-by-day, surely the people can dazzle day-by-day.

I pray that we can learn to look high above the cloudbank of our doubt, our fears, and our apathy about what can and must be done to bring God's dominion on earth. I pray that we are transfigured, so that we dazzle. With God's love, the example of Jesus and the companionship of the Holy Spirit, our faces, too, will shine upon the whole world, revealing God within us.


* Courtesy, Brian McLaren, Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope

© Katharine Preston

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