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On Fire

Jazz Service of Worship
Sunday, March 3, 2019.  Rev. Scott Ramsey, preaching.
ScriptureReadings:  Exodus 34:29-35; Luke 9:28-36

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Scripture Reading/Sermon begins at 20:54 in the video
Time of full video is 1 hour, 23 minutes and 29 seconds

One of the details that has always intrigued me about Luke’s version of the Transfiguration story is how the disciples are in the presence of all this awesomeness, and yet they are heavy with sleep. They’re up on the mountain, see Jesus in dazzling white clothes, it is as though he is on fire, the appearance of his face is changing, he’s talking with Moses and Elijah, two of the biggies from Jewish history and faith, and they have a hard time staying awake? It’s like going to a rock concert and saying to your buddy in the middle of the show, “Hey man, I think I’m gonna take a nap.”

What’s that about?

Immediately before our gospel reading which begins in Luke 9:28, Jesus is talking to his disciples about how he will be rejected, crucified, and raised from the dead.  Then he tells them, “If any of you want to be my followers, deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.” Taking up your cross is a way of naming the costs that come in the life of discipleship.  Following Jesus on the path of love, mercy, and justice in our world of violence, hatred, alienation, and oppression can regularly involve a real, personal cost.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great Lutheran pastor and theologian of the early 20th century, wrote a book entitled The Cost of Discipleship about this very thing.

In verse 27 – immediately before our reading – Jesus says, “Some are standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.”

So when Jesus takes Peter, James, and John – who would have been standing there with Jesus in verse 27 – up on a mountain and they see him transfigured and talking to people who are from another time, I think that Luke is telling us that Peter, James, and John are those who are seeing the kingdom of God. This is more than just having a really cool experience.  They are getting a glimpse of God’s kingdom right in their presence.  We may think of the kingdom of God as the depths of reality. They see Jesus as he really is, in his glory. They see Moses and Elijah, the giants of their faith, the representatives of the Law and the Prophets. They have a glimpse of the kingdom.

So again, how on earth could they fall asleep?

Some years ago, I was talking to my therapist.  We were discussing one of my many issues, and at some point in the session, I yawned.  Let out a big old mouth-open yawn.  And what my therapist said to me was, “You seem really anxious about this.”  I said to him, “What are you talking about? I just yawned.”  And he said, “Well, yeah, but often times, when we’re anxious, we will find ourselves shutting down in some way, and a yawn can be an indication of that.”  It occurred to me that perhaps because I was discussing something that was kind of stressful, I may have become stressed and fearful, and when some of us become afraid, we stop breathing.  Which means that my body was not getting the oxygen it needed, and so it yawned to try and take in some emergency nourishment.

Sometimes, when we get close to something that generates fear in us, we will begin to shut down in some way.  We don’t breathe, we don’t think as well, we don’t communicate as well, and in really stressful times, we may just want to check out altogether and go to sleep.  I wonder if Peter, James, and John were just getting overwhelmed by their experience.  They were close to the heart of reality. Much of the time, we may prefer to live our lives closer to the surface of reality, where things seem more predictable, more controllable, more routine.  When things become deep or threatening in some way, we can shut down. When Peter comes to, he starts nervously suggesting to Jesus that they start a construction project to build three dwellings, which could have been Peter’s attempt to try and put the occasion in a box of some kind, to try and contain it.

You may recall that, in the gospel of Mark, when Jesus is praying in the garden of Gethsemane, he takes Peter, James, and John with him.  And again, they fall asleep. What does Jesus say to them there? “Keep awake.”

So how do we keep awake, how do we remain present in our lives, when life gets intense?  When the threats of life become intense for us, how do we stay present in the moment, rather than checking out in one way or another?  We can check out of our present-moment experience in any number of ways.  Some of us watch TV, some of us turn to our phones, some turn to alcohol or drugs or food, some of us become really aggressive, some of us become really passive and accommodating, anything to get away from what can feel like the vulnerability of the moment.  How do we stay present?

I would share two practices that have been of help to me.  One is to remember to breathe.  Deeply, down into your belly.  Remember my experience in my therapist’s office.  What I had done was to stop breathing.  I cut myself off from my breath.  And if you remember your Greek or your Hebrew, you will remember that the word for ‘breath’ is the same word for ‘spirit.’  When we cut ourselves off from breath, we are also cutting ourselves off from the Holy Spirit.  So when you find yourself in a stressful situation, the stress can be a reminder to take a couple of deep breaths.  It will help you to be in your body in the moment.

The second thing comes directly from our text. When the disciples were on the mountain terrified, a voice came from the cloud saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen. Listen to him.”  Listen to Jesus.  This may sound elementary and simple and childlike, and I suppose it is. But believe me, it can be a remarkable gift.  Jesus is your loving Lord, present in your life at every moment. He is waiting to communicate with you, to speak to you, with a will for you in every situation.  He loves you, he is with you, and he can help you be present to your own life.

We begin the season of Lent this Wednesday.  Lent is a season of purification, of getting down to the essentials, of drawing close to the heart of reality.

What we find is that, at every moment, we are standing on holy ground, and the bushes around us are all on fire, if our eyes will just be opened.  But that requires us to be present to our lives, to notice these things.  And when we can be present, when we can notice the beauties that are around us all the time, our lives will take on a deeper meaning.  To God be all the glory.  Amen.