Listen to Him | Transfiguration

Matthew 17:1-9

1 Six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and brought them to the top of a very high mountain. 2 He was transformed in front of them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light.

3 Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Jesus. 4 Peter reacted to all of this by saying to Jesus, “Lord, it’s good that we’re here. If you want, I’ll make three shrines: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

5 While he was still speaking, look, a bright cloud overshadowed them. A voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son whom I dearly love. I am very pleased with him. Listen to him!” 6 Hearing this, the disciples fell on their faces, filled with awe.

7 But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” 8 When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.

9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Don’t tell anybody about the vision until the Human One is raised from the dead.” (CEB)

Listen to Him

My wife likes French toast. So, early in our marriage, she made French toast for breakfast fairly often. And I ate the French toast she made. About ten years into our marriage, I finally found the courage to admit to her that I don’t really care for French toast. She never asked me if I liked French toast, and I never said anything because I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. We both failed to communicate. I think we finally communicated with each other about it when she asked me why I never ate more than one piece. Marriage is a relationship, and relationships require the people in them to relate.

A big part of that relating to each other is a willingness to speak and to listen together. Words like commune and communication come from the Latin prefix com- meaning together and the root munis meaning burden, duty, and obligation. Community is sharing the burdens of life together. It’s our obligations and duties to each other. Sometimes it’s bearing with each other. For community, communion, and communication to happen, we need to listen to each other and learn about each other. We especially need to pay attention to what the other in any particular relationship wants, needs, likes, dislikes, etc.

The reason I mention relationships and the etymology of com-mune is because we’re made for this stuff. God designed us for relationships: relationships with God, with creation, and with each other.

If you were asked to summarize the narratives of the Bible, how would you describe them? When I think on that matter, what I would describe is the story of God’s relentless pursuit of a relationship with us—God’s beloved creatures—who, more often than not, try our darndest to ignore the very God who created us as reflections of the Divine. The Bible tells the story of a God who desires our attention, to be in a relationship; a God who—for our sake—gave the law to teach us, sent the prophets to remind us, sent the Son to walk with us, and gave the Holy Spirit to guide us.

God loves us so deeply, so potently, so vastly that God refuses to give up on us or let us leave. God has fought for us and worked on our behalf from the moment we were created, and God will keep fighting for us until we’re all gathered-in to live with God as a family, which is exactly what we’re made to do and be. God wants our attention because relationships require our attention. Relationships require effort from all parties involved. When we stop giving attention to someone, or they stop giving attention to us, our relationship with that person will break down.

There are innumerable hindrances and obstacles to the necessary work for building up and developing our relationships. Every day, we are assailed by attempts from people and things who want our attention. The bombardment becomes even more of a constant the moment we turn on the television or radio. Every advertisement, whether it’s for a political candidate or a new product which is guaranteed to make our life easier, or grant us more success, or gain increased wealth, or feel a deeper sense of contentment, or find secret meaning: they’re all vying for our attention. They promise us that if we listen to them, then our lives will be better.

The things that want our attention are more than TV and radio advertisements, obviously. There are people peddling ideologies and sentiments that promise us their way will make our lives better. If we exclude these people, for instance, they promise that we’ll prosper. If we blame these people for our troubles, then we can fix our problems by getting rid of them. If we make these people look bad or less important than us, then we can feel better about ourselves.

We all have strong beliefs about lots of stuff. We each have our own thoughts, values, and hopes which we espouse and champion, whether the stance is religious, political, ideological, or otherwise. We’re somewhat defined by the stances we take. Our stances set limits and lines for our lives that we dare not cross. We all have them, and often times these are good things. It’s how we know not to kill someone when we get angry at them, for instance. We all have ideas that we desperately know—to the core of our being—that our beliefs are true and right and divinely approved. The problem, of course, is that God doesn’t always agree with our assessment of what is true and right and divinely approved.

The Apostle Peter was a person with a firm belief in who Jesus was. He knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that Jesus is God’s Son, the Christ who had come into the world. Peter was, in fact, the first one to confess this belief. Slightly earlier in Matthew, just before our text begins, Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do people say the Human One is?” (Matthew 16:13 CEB). And, they replied by telling Jesus the latest word on the street. Some suggested that Jesus must be John the Baptizer come back from the dead. Others said Jesus was Elijah. Still others said he was Jeremiah or one of the other prophets (c.f. Matthew 16:14). Then, Jesus asked his companions, “And what about you? Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15 CEB). It’s then that Peter makes his great confession: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16 CEB).

And, you know what? Peter nailed it! He knew exactly who Jesus was. Jesus is God’s Son. Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the true Ruler of Israel! And, since Peter got the answer right, Jesus apparently felt he could trust the disciples with more information. So, after blessing Peter for his God-revealed confession, Jesus began to tell his disciples that he needed to go to Jerusalem and suffer terrible things at the hands of the elders, priests, and legal experts. There, in Jerusalem, he would be killed and raised on the third day.

But Peter didn’t like what he heard. We’re told, “Then Peter took hold of Jesus and, scolding him, began to correct him: ‘God forbid, Lord! This won’t happen to you.’ But he [Jesus] turned to Peter and said, ‘Get behind me Satan. You are a stone that could make me stumble, for you are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts’” (Matthew 16:22-23 CEB).

Peter reminds us that it’s possible to know who Jesus is without really understanding what Jesus is about. Peter reminds us that we should be cautious about believing—let alone declaring to others—that we possess the whole truth. Sometimes the stances we take—while they might seem good to us—they do not have their origin in God.

“Six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and brought them to the top of a very high mountain. He was transformed in front of them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light. Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Jesus” (Matthew 17:1-3 CEB).

I wish I could have listened in on that conversation. Can you imagine? Luke’s Gospel tells us that they spoke about Jesus’ departure, which was a reference to his death, resurrection, and ascension. Moses, the prophet of God who represented the law and the covenant God made with Israel at Sinai; Elijah, the Man of God who represented the prophets of Israel; and Jesus, the Christ and Son of the Living God who came to fulfill both the law and the prophets were having a chat on the mountain.

But, Moses, Elijah, and Jesus are connected. The teaching of Jesus wasn’t new or innovative. Some of what Jesus taught corrected misguided human interpretations, but it wasn’t new stuff. The teaching of Jesus is inextricably linked to the prophets and the law. That love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength thing, Jesus got that from Deuteronomy 6. And the love your neighbor as yourself thing, Jesus got that from Leviticus 19. Love is at the center of what Jesus taught, just as love is the central reason why God pursues us no matter how badly we mess life up for ourselves and for others.

The Transfiguration of Jesus is this powerful moment in time. And, in a sermon on this day, I should probably talk about the parallel connections to Moses at Sinai: how they both went up on a mountain, how they both were overshadowed by a luminous cloud, how God spoke out of the cloud, how Moses’ face shined brightly and Jesus’ whole being lit up like a newborn star.

I could talk about the connection to Elijah at Mount Horeb with the wind, earthquake, fire, and God’s voice like the sound of silence.

I could, or probably should, talk about the theological significance of this moment being the second time that God is fully revealed as Three-In-One: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I could talk about how the Son went up the mountain, the Holy Spirit covered them in a luminous cloud, and the Father spoke from the heavens to identify the Son and call him beloved.

I could talk about Peter’s offer to act as servant by building shrines to house this profound appearance of divine splendor where all of Israel’s history suddenly intersected with their present.

But what I want us to hear, what I think we desperately need to hear, are God’s words about listening. “Listen to him!” You see, Peter already knew the first part about Jesus. The voice of God said, “This is my Son whom I dearly love. I am very pleased with him” (Matthew 17:5 CEB), all that, Peter already got. He confessed it. It was the last bit, “Listen to him!”, that was—and so often still proves to be—the difficult part. When Peter didn’t want to hear the lesson Jesus had to teach, Jesus said, “Get behind me Satan. You are a stone that could make me stumble, for you are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts” (Matthew 16:22-23 CEB).

When we listen to the wrong voices vying for our attention instead of the voice of Jesus, we sin. When we heed the wrong teachers instead of the teaching of Jesus, we sin. When we listen to our own rationalizations and pay attention to our own desires instead of the lessons and examples of God’s Son, we sin.

“Listen to him!” We must listen to Jesus in order to learn the way of God, not to our politicians and political leanings. We must listen to Jesus to learn what God demands of us, not to our personal preferences. We must listen to Jesus to discover how God wants us to treat other human beings, not to our human ideologies. The teaching of Jesus trumps everyone and everything because the teaching of Jesus is the teaching of God. What Jesus teaches us is that love is central to everything.

God loves you. God loves you, and God loves the people you think are unholy sinners, and God is as desperate for a relationship with you as you need a relationship with God. God has pursued you with grace and love your whole life long. But, if we want to build our relationship with God, if we want to foster and com-mune with the God who loves us more than we can possibly imagine, who sent the Son to live and die for our sake, then we need to listen to Jesus.

I’ll be the first to admit that listening to Jesus might lead us into places and among people and into ideas that will make our hearts and minds recoil in fear. But maybe that’s where our listening to Jesus can begin. Because after Peter, James, and John fell prostrate to the ground, trembling in fear at the voice of God, the first words out of Jesus’ mouth were, “Get up,” and “Don’t be afraid” (Matthew 17:7 CEB).

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay

Do, Love, Walk | 4th after Epiphany

Micah 6:1-8

1 Hear what the LORD is saying:

Arise, lay out the lawsuit before the mountains; let the hills hear your voice!

2 Hear, mountains, the lawsuit of the LORD! Hear, eternal foundations of the earth!

The LORD has a lawsuit against his people; with Israel he will argue.

3 “My people, what did I ever do to you? How have I wearied you? Answer me!

4 I brought you up out of the land of Egypt; I redeemed you from the house of slavery. I sent Moses, Aaron, and Miriam before you.

5 My people, remember what Moab’s King Balak had planned, and how Balaam, Beor’s son, answered him! Remember everything from Shittim to Gilgal, that you might learn to recognize the righteous acts of the LORD!”

 

6 With what should I approach the LORD and bow down before God on high? Should I come before him with entirely burned offerings, with year-old calves?

7 Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with many torrents of oil?

Should I give my oldest child for my crime; the fruit of my body for the sin of my spirit?

 

8 He has told you, human one, what is good and what the LORD requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God. (CEB)

Do, Love, Walk

Sometimes people of faith ask questions about what God really wants from us. How good is good enough? If I have my checklist of religious things that I do, how many of them do I need to check off before I can say I’m saved? One of our human tendencies is to answer those questions with what we think or what we want rather than listening to what God has already told us. We like to congratulate—even justify—ourselves by pointing out all of our religious activities. We’re doing the right things. We show up for worship. We dot our “i”s and cross our “t”s.

Truth be told, we are not wrong to think that our presence in worship matters, that being an active part of our religious community is important, because it is. Our worship and religious rituals do matter. At the same time, God expects to see our religion result in something. True worship extends into how we live and behave every day. True worship extends into how we treat others, how we live with others, how we give of ourselves for others. Our everyday ethics matter to God more than anything else.

Our worship is not about self-interest, but self-offering. But, as a pastor who organizes and leads worship, I’ve heard people complain more times than I can count about how they didn’t get anything out of it. As if they only came to worship so they could get something for themselves. One of my seminary professors, Will Willimon, was Dean of Duke Chapel, and he had someone say that to him: that he didn’t get anything out of the sermon or the worship. Will responded by asking the man what he brought to it.

We call worship a “service” because it’s our service to God. We offer our worship to God by offering ourselves. And we do get something out of that. We do receive grace, which is God’s presence with us. But if receiving is our primary reason for worship, as if God or the pastor owes us some good feelings, then we have disordered priorities. And, if our worship fails to result in the ethics that God expects of us, then we haven’t listened to what God wants.

If that’s us—and we ought not rush to discount that it might be us—then we’re in good company. The people of Israel and Judah had similar listening problems.

The prophet Micah, who lived in the late 8th century B.C., presents a covenant lawsuit that is brought by God against the people of Israel. Back in 1996, God got into a small argument with me about calling me to ministry, and I didn’t win. But this is a lawsuit, and God calls the mountains, hills, and foundations of the earth forth as witnesses to the proceedings. “Hear, mountains, the lawsuit of the LORD! Hear, eternal foundations of the earth! The LORD has a lawsuit against his people; with Israel he will argue” (Micah 6:2 CEB).

There is some mild wordplay going on in this verse, with Israel he will argue, or will contend. You might recall that, when Jacob received the name Israel he was told, “Your name won’t be Jacob any longer, but Israel, because you struggled with God and with men and won” (Genesis 32:28 CEB). The name Israel literally means fight against God. Now, in this lawsuit, God is the one who will contend. God will argue. God will strive. The name Israel can also mean God fights.

God begins the argument by asking the people what God has done to them, how God has wearied them. Then, the savings acts of God on behalf of the people are recounted: The Exodus from slavery in Egypt where God sent Moses, Aaron, and Miriam to lead them; the attempt of King Balak to get the prophet Balaam to curse the people but thrice spoke a blessing instead (c.f. Numbers 22-24); all the events from Shittim (which was east of the Jordan where Joshua had the people camp before crossing over) to Gilgal (which was west of the Jordan, where Joshua had the people camp after God parted the Jordan’s waters so the people could cross into the Promised Land) (c.f. Joshua 3-5).

The people seem to have forgotten their story and, in forgetting their story, they have forgotten the saving acts of their God. In forgetting who they are and the covenant faithfulness that God has shown to them by always remembering them, they have fallen out of a right relationship with God and with each other.

You see, earlier in Micah, we find that God has already laid out the charges against Israel. The powerful “covet fields and seize them, houses and take them away. They oppress a householder and those in his house, a man and his estate” (Micah 2:2 CEB).

They’re the ones who “hate good and love evil, who tear the skin off them, and the flesh off their bones, who devour the flesh of my people, tear off their skin, break their bones in pieces, and spread them out as if in a pot, like meat in a kettle” (Micah 3:2-3 CEB). They proclaim “Peace!” when they have plenty to eat, but at the same time they stir up violence against the poor and starving (c.f. Micah 3:5). The officials of Jerusalem, “give justice for a bribe, and her priests teach for hire. Her prophets offer divination for silver” (Micah 3:11 CEB).

It’s dangerous to forget our story. When we forget, or when we only remember certain parts, then we lose something about ourselves. The adage that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it rings true yet again. This is one of the reasons why we hear the account of the Great Thanksgiving each Sunday, because it reminds us of our story and recounts the mighty acts of God on our behalf from creation to the future yet to come.

Here, God calls the people to remember their story once again, and not merely part, but the whole of their story. They were slaves, and God let them to freedom. They were homeless, wandering refugees, and God guided them to a home. They were led by God’s hand all along and, as part of the covenant God made with them, God has expectations for their behavior toward other people. To remember their story serves as starting point for a return to right relationship.

Then, in verse 6, the defendant, Israel, responds with a series of questions. Essentially, Israel is asking God, What more do you want? How much more religious do we need to be to make you happy? Do you want burnt offerings and calves a year old? Will you be happy with thousands of rams, or rivers of oil? Do I need to sacrifice my oldest child to receive your forgiveness? What more does the Lord God want? It’s as if Israel thinks that God could actually be pleased with excess, and they’re trying to figure out exactly how far they need to go with it.

That’s when Micah re-enters the conversation by reminding Israel that God has already told them—and uswhat is good and what the LORD God requires of us: “to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8 CEB).

The first thing God requires is justice, but what does that mean, exactly? Justice is part of God’s nature. Isaiah tells us that the Lord is a God of justice. (c.f. Isaiah 30:18). Justice is concerned with community by finding a balance between personal good and the common good.

There is the kind of justice that focuses on the relationships between people in a community—including those who might be considered outsiders to a community. Under God’s Law, there is no person among us who is outside of our community or whom we can treat as less than a full member of our community (c.f. Leviticus 19:34).

There is the kind of justice that focuses on the equitable distribution of goods, necessities, wealth, and burdens of a community.

And there is the kind of justice that focuses on the social order that is necessary within the community to accomplish the first two. Justice is about our ethics. It’s about how well we live, relate, and share together.

Next, Micah tells us that God requires us to embrace faithful love. Some English translations render this: to love kindness or to love mercy. Like justice, to embrace faithful love is about our ethics. It’s about how we treat others with kindness, dignity, love, grace, peace, encouragement. It’s about how we bear with others in the midst of joy or sorrow, famine or plenty. It’s about how we look past a person’s circumstances and consequences-of-birth to see the person: beloved of God, made in the image of God, redeemed by God, and commended into our personal and communal care by God.

To walk humbly with God implies an openness to the idea that, despite what we think in our frail certainties, we really might not have all the right answers. To walk humbly with God means that we recognize our faults before we start to pull specks out of other peoples’ eyes with our divine tweezers. We might see faults and sins in others but, instead of passing judgment on them, we remind ourselves that we’re guilty of sin, too.

The holiness that God expects of us is not that we separate ourselves from those whom we deem as not holy as us. In light of the petitions up for vote at General Conference in May, it’s my hope—my prayer—that United Methodists everywhere would remember that. Only when we learn to walk humbly with God can we learn and understand how to do justice and embrace faithful love.

Through Micah, God reminded the people that religious activity and ritual adherence do nothing for us—and do nothing but disappoint and anger God—when our when our ethics fall short of what God requires. Yes, religious activity is important. It is. It’s important to worship and tithe and receive communion and sing and eat. We definitely like to eat.

Jesus spoke to the importance of religious observance when he told the Scribes and Pharisees, “How terrible for you Pharisees! You give a tenth of your mint, rue, and garden herbs of all kinds, while neglecting justice and love for God. These you ought to have done without neglecting the others” (Luke 11:42 CEB; c.f. also Matthew 23:23). They gave every 10th leaf of their herb plants because they wanted to make sure they gave a full tithe which, honestly, is probably better than some of us do. But they also failed to do justice. Jesus notes that they cheated widows—who were among the most vulnerable members of the community—out of their homes (c.f. Luke 20:46).

We are invited to religious practice and ritual observance because they help us remember our story. Faithfulness is going through the motions of our religion and meaning it. And, faithfulness is remembering that our worship of God doesn’t stop at the sanctuary exit. Our worship of God extends into the world, and God is more concerned about how we love others—or fail to love others—than just about anything else. There is no room for misogyny, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, or any other personal fear or form of discrimination that prevents us from loving others fully. Our relationship with God is only right when our relationship with each other—especially the least and different among us—is right, too.

We’ve been told what the Lord requires. The question is, are we courageous enough to live it?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Rev. Christopher Millay