What’s Missing?

Rev. Beth Hoffman Faeth
February 11, 2024, Transfiguration Sunday

Scripture: Mark 9:2–9

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Beloved, my Own; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Promised One had risen from the dead.

Since September, the clergy have led a weekly scripture study on Thursday mornings. We have been so pleased (and sort of amazed) at the large attendance and the continued interest! While I usually refrain from speaking for my colleagues, I can say with confidence that Seth, DeWayne and I are really enjoying this opportunity, and it is especially nice to rotate leadership so that participants receive a different perspective along with a variety of topics and focus. We certainly hope that enjoyment in this endeavor will continue and we invite you to try it out any week… Thursdays at 11am in the chapel. Newcomers are always welcome.

One of the things I most appreciate about preparing for and facilitating the scripture study is the discipline involved in exploring a passage in depth. With careful examination, most biblical stories evolve in meaning, and nuanced understanding is revealed in enlightening ways. For most of us, we hear scripture read only on Sunday mornings, and it can be difficult to even follow along when the storyline is complicated or convoluted, or as it is most of the time—read out of context to the larger arc of the narrative. Every time I study a passage in depth, I come away with something new, a revelation missed when reduced to a perfunctory read or a skimming through. And then these new understandings are enhanced when discussed in a group, hearing what others notice and glean from reading the same words. If that sounds like an elaborate commercial inviting your participation in Thursday Scripture Study—it is! Come join us! Yet this same practice regarding a deeper dive into biblical story is true for what we do in this time together, too. As a preacher I am committed to taking seriously each biblical passage chosen for Sunday morning worship, spending much time with the text, pursuing the meaning behind the words on the page. I understand my challenge as a preacher to illuminate the relevance of the scripture story for our contemporary and communal life, to lift up the possibilities for transformation within the text; while also sharing the good news found within each story. The word gospel is derived from the Anglo-Saxon term god-spell, meaning “good story,” a rendering of the Latin and the Greek, meaning “good news” or “good telling.” Some Sundays this endeavor is much easier than others. Right now, given the state of society, good news is hard to come by. Last week DeWayne encouraged us to live into our “gospel identity”, especially when the workings of the world do not match our calling or intentions as believers. I think to claim our gospel identity we need to feel fully rooted in understanding the ways of God and Jesus as found in scripture, making this time together on Sunday mornings all the more important as we extrapolate together what might otherwise be missed.

Today is a transitional day in the church calendar. The season of Epiphany is ending and on Wednesday, Lent begins. We move from the charge to make manifest Christ’s light in the world into the invitation for deep spiritual reflection about discipleship through the exploration of the life and death of Jesus. The story of the Transfiguration is used each year in the Revised Common Lectionary to bridge these two seasons—and it includes elements relevant to both Epiphany and Lent: On a mountaintop with three of his disciples Jesus suddenly begins to glow in the dark and appearing with him are the dead prophets Moses and Elijah. Peter, ever the instigator, thinks the best idea ever is to stay on top of the mountain and build monuments for the three prophets, a strategic ploy to delay returning to the realities of the world below (remember, things were getting harder for Jesus and his disciples as the government was growing increasingly aggressive in putting an end to Jesus’ mission and ministry). But before Peter can even complete his half baked thought the voice of God knocks the disciples to the ground with the same declaration God used at Jesus’ baptism, “This is my Beloved, my Own…” naming Jesus as God’s flesh and blood and then adding what I now see as the missing link in all my prior readings and studies of this text. God ends the brief but powerful directive with three words… listen to him. Listen to him. And just as soon as the whole sensational scene began it ended…Moses and Elijah are gone and the small gathering’s time on the mountaintop concludes. Likely dazed and confused, the three disciples and Jesus descend, where Jesus orders them not to say a word about what happened until after the resurrection.

I will admit that for years, decades, I have tried to figure out and justify the Transfiguration scene. Why did Jesus literally change, dazzle, glow in the dark? Were the images of Moses and Elijah spirits or did they actually appear? The fantastical imagery is what drew me in and frankly, distracted me. I became so focused on deciphering the optics I have thought little about God’s command and therein I think I missed the point… the transfiguration is not about what is seen, it is about what was heard. To what should Jesus’ disciples pay attention? Presumably, everything that Jesus says.

Which then invites the question… are we listening? Russian composer Igor Stravinsky once said, “To listen is an effort, and just to hear is no merit.” If this is true of music, how much more does it bear on Jesus’ commands? It is one thing to notice Jesus, I must admit that often what I think is missing from church is Jesus himself… our progressive Christianity leads us down the road of discrediting rather than embracing who we are called to follow. What could happen if we were more intentional about Jesus and what it looks like in this day and age to be a disciple? If we are listening, this is with what we must grapple: “Follow me” (Mark 1:17; 2:14). “Pay attention to what you hear” (4:24). “Do not be afraid, only believe” (5:36; 6:50). “You give them something to eat” (6:37). “It is what comes out of a person that defiles” (7:20). “Deny [yourself] and take up [your cross] and follow me” (8:34). “Go, sell what you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (10:21) “For God, all things are possible” (10:27) “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” (10:31). “Whoever wishes to be first among you must be servant of all” (10:44). “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone” (11:25). “Give to God the things that are God’s” (12:17) “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (12:31) And that is only a few of Jesus’ words from the Gospel of Mark. Matthew, Luke, and John offer more. As Princeton’s professor of Biblical Theology C. Clifton Black writes, “Anyone who thinks Christian faith is a retreat from reality is clueless.” (C. Clifton Black, Workingpreacher.org) If we are listening, we will understand that Jesus speaks directly to our present day, our current circumstance, providing explanation and antidotes to our fractured spirits and world. When, O beloved community, will we begin to take Jesus seriously? When will we move from hearing to listening so as to embody his words?

When I first began to imagine this sermon, ruminating on the phrase “what’s missing?” as I contemplated the Transfiguration text, I realized quickly that this is a spiritual question transcending the morning’s pericope. Particularly in this post pandemic era we now inhabit, many are examining their lives and finding a deep sense of loss and unfulfillment. I have had numerous pastoral conversations about the sense that something is missing from busy, complicated lives, yet naming what that is remains elusive. Sometimes we can categorize and identify that we feel unsatisfied in relationships or connections, or that the monotony of work or daily life leaves an emptiness in our spirit. But more often it seems that we exist within a weight of malaise, despairing over the plethora of disharmony in the world as well as the wanderlust within. The message of the Transfiguration as recorded in Mark reminds us that what we see—whether resplendent or rundown—rarely tells the whole story. In order to get to the heart of the matter we have to use more of our senses than sight. We need to listen and feel and release our fear of delving in to a depth of emotion yet unsowed. For to find the missing piece of our life’s puzzle requires intention, a willingness to do some hard work and faith that figuring it out isn’t all about us. That when we trust in a power greater than ourselves, when we really listen to the still voice within, the voice that I name the Divine, when we lean in to the mystery of grace, we can create transformation, in ourselves and in the world. Therein, mysteries will be revealed.

Lent creates for us time and invites us to take seriously the call of discipleship; to move beyond whatever superficial ways we have understood following Jesus into something deeper and more substantial in our life. That will take some risk and a willingness to do our own examination of what is missing in our faith perspective. It will require our own listening and discernment within our church. It will necessitate getting real about the happenings in our community and beyond and a more than perfunctory look at the matters within our own heart. Peter, James and John became distracted by what they saw as Jesus transfigured before them. They tasked themselves with a job to do on the mountain top. God directed a different path. God commanded them to let go of their need to do and instead instructed them to listen to Jesus. To listen is to honor the other and be open to change. To listen is to acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers, and that wisdom is not inherent but learned. To listen is to not fill the space with empty words and misappropriated promises. To listen is to hold potential for discovering what is missing.

Let’s listen this Lent. Let us listen especially to Jesus.

Because doing so will reveal the Good News.

Amen.

9 a.m. service

11 a.m. service

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