That Wild Thing Happened
Last May, I concluded my third year working as the Director of Masters Level Recruitment and Admissions at my alma mater, McCormick Theological Seminary. The best part of the job, in my view, was having conversations with prospective students and listening to their stories. If you’re not familiar with McCormick, it’s important to mention, before I go on much more, that it is the most diverse seminary in the PC(USA) – there is no racial majority and the largest demographic statistic of the student body is that 40% of students are Presbyterian – the other 60% ranging from Roman Catholic to Seventh Day Adventist to non-denominational to Baptist and everything in between. 60% of the students are commuters – so, they live in the Chicago area and 40% are residents on-campus, which means, they, most likely, come from other parts of the world including all over the US, Colombia, South Korea, Myanmar, Ghana, you name it. So, as you can imagine, with this diverse population, I heard a lot of different stories as to why students wanted to come to McCormick.
The stories are all over the map. Some students come straight out of college – pipeliners, we called them, because being a pastor is what they’ve always wanted to do. Others come because their pastor had been encouraging their leadership in the church for so long that they might as well go to school and get paid for it because, in reality, it’s really what gives them joy. And others, well, others have stories of wildness – like, this one woman, Kimberly. She came into my office one day and she had this hurried sense about her. She had her application and loose papers falling out of her bag and her coat spilling over her arms and she rushed into my office and sat down at the table in my office, which happened to be right next to a rack that displayed my clergy stoles. For the most part, she barely looked at anyone else in the office – just rushed in, asked the student working at the front desk where the Director of Admissions office was and hustled on down the hall. She plunked down in the chair, took a breath and then lifted her eyes and saw 2 things she didn’t expect to see. First, she noticed the colorful stoles on the wall and then she saw me – a woman. She let out this great big sigh and then she said, “Lord! This settles it! I’m here!” I stuttered out of surprise. You can imagine – one moment, I’m quietly responding to emails at my desk and then this woman bounds in, settles no more than 5 feet from me and says, “Lord! That settles is! I’m here!” Eventually, I composed myself, extended my hand and said, “Hi! I’m JC – I’m the Director of Recruitment and Admissions here and I assume that you are interested in theological education?” She said, “Girl – yes I am and I’ll tell you why – and, I hope you don’t think I’m crazy!” For the next 20 minutes, she regaled me with a truly wild story of the path that brought her to my office. She told me about the time she spent in jail and when she got out, she saw a cross in the patchy grass of her neighbors yard. As she sat by her mother’s bedside, she saw a light flash outside the window in the moment her mother passed away. She went to work and her supervisors name was Jesus and several Sundays in a row, when leaving church, she would see this bumper sticker that said, “got Jesus?” She spoke to her pastor about going to seminary and he was not very encouraging of her, as a woman – “pastorates were meant for men” he said – then, she said, “this morning, I got on the bus to check this out and I saw the bumper sticker again and now you’re here in front of me – you’re a lady pastor?! Why do you have these stoles?! God is SO good! Sign me up!” We spent about an hour together that afternoon and then several months later, she started as a student at McCormick.
Now, the funny thing about that job was that it gave me a unique perspective as a companion on their journey – I have more of a bird’s eye view of their experiences – I witnessed their excitement as they were applying or getting ready to start classes. But, then, it’s usually about the fifth week of the semester when the excitement begins to wear off, reality sets in, and it’s still another 7 weeks until break and their encounters with me start to shift – perhaps some of you students can relate… I remember in October of Kimberly’s first year, she came through the office one afternoon, taking a break from studying, and jokingly – with probably a bit of realism – she said to me, “Girl, sometimes I think you’ve duped me…this studying thing is hard! It’s a lot of work and it’s stressful! I don’t know if I can do all this!” I just chuckled, gave her a big hug and told her ‘got, Jesus?’ She chuckled and sighed – she just needed to be reminded why she was there.
Today, our Gospel lesson tells another wild story. It comes to us from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 17, verses 1 through 9. Let us listen for God’s wild Word for us this morning.
Let us pray, Startle us, O God. As we listen to this wild story, startle us with your love and help us to listen. Amen.
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
This is the Word of God for the people of God, thanks be to God.
So, this morning, our text for the day is Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration of Jesus. You heard a little bit of background to the Transfiguration from Ryan before the first reading so I won’t repeat that but I will add that in our lectionary calendar, this event, the final Sunday of Epiphany, is always known as Transfiguration Sunday. This is an annual celebration – a telling of this event, the Transfiguration of Jesus, occurs in three of the four Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke. For each of these Gospels, the story is found somewhere in the middle of the gospel – a turning point, so to speak. And, I find the telling in Matthew quite remarkable.
Now, not to sound like a broken record – but, again, we are to remember that this text is simply one passage and it must be read in context of the whole Gospel. This passage is not the exclusive experience of being in the presence of God told in Scripture – in fact, the whole Gospel of Matthew really tries to drive that point home – that God is with us always. And, for the most part, the Gospel of Matthew tends to portray Jesus, portray the presence of God, in a very logical manner. Jesus sits on a rock and he speaks of the meek and the peacemakers and they are blessed as they labor in faith. He speaks clearly about loving your enemies – that it’s not simply about being polite to others but that we are called to really love them, acknowledging their identity as children of God. You can almost picture yourself sitting with Jesus in a coffee shop as he, with eloquent simplicity, explains that your light shall not be placed under a bush but on a lamp-stand so that all may see the goodness of God. But, this scene is different. It’s a pretty wild story, isn’t it? And, I just love it. It’s as if Matthew lets down his pedagogical bar a bit and is blown away by this extraordinary story. It’s a moment when even Matthew has to admit that faith in God, that experiencing the presence of God, is simply amazing – no matter how much you try to rationalize it – that being in the presence of God is just extraordinary and it makes for a story that’s hard to believe. It’s almost like a breaking point moment when God says, ‘Enough religion and subtlety already – this is my Son, just listen to the guy!’ Isn’t this amazing?!
Sometimes, there are moments of clarity when God speaks so explicitly that doubt is obliterated. There are moments when you hear the words, “Listen to him” and in your next step, you do. This passage reflects a moment of clarity that occurs for the disciples – Jesus’ face shone like the sun and God’s voice says that Jesus, the man standing before them, the man they have been following and will continue to follow down the mountain, is God’s beloved Son and they are to listen to him. Explicitly – “Listen to him!” – listen to all the teachings, listen to him when he tells of how to love one another well and how to love God – and, with a hand on their shoulders, God tells them, ‘do not be afraid.’ You can imagine yourself there, or at least in some relatable experience -where you’re blown away and unsure of what the heck is happening, but you are sure that something amazing occurred and you will, from now on, act accordingly. But, like the Scripture passage, this moment of confidence is in the context of a larger story. Like the disciples, you still have to go back down the mountain and back to the city. And, Jesus is going with you.
Abraham Heschel, a Polish-born American rabbi and leading Jewish theologian of the 20th century once wrote that “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. Get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal. Everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.” And, I think this text this morning points to just that. For many of us, to be spiritual is to be introspective or to have our own path or it’s to be knowledgeable or religious, but here, we see there’s just something about Jesus that breaks through our logic and introspection, leaving us amazed.
Being in the presence of God ranges from feeling comforted to feeling entirely extraordinary and utterly inexplicable. We might feel this in our daily prayers, in an embrace of a loved one, in a lovely night out with friends, in a smile of a stranger on the Metro. And, we feel it in those moments where you don’t even know where to start the story – kind of like Kimberly. But we live in a culture that tends to police extraordinary experiences – we have moments of feeling truly awestruck, moments of amazement, and yet our culture tells us that we shouldn’t share those moments unless we can academically and logically explain what happened. But, our text today speaks to the opposite and gives us permission not only to have those extraordinary moments but to share them. It acknowledges that a wild thing happened and amazement is not the enemy of knowledge – Amazement should accompany it – because this is how hope shines through.
The disciples had to go back down the mountain – and Jesus went with them. The path before them was a road to Jerusalem – it was not an easy road as they encountered both triumphal receptions and betrayals and trials. For those of us sitting here in the pews, we look ahead to the Lenten season to come, and we are walking down the mountain with them, to the city where fear spreads like an epidemic and it will be hard to remember this moment of amazement. So, just for a moment, I invite you to take a moment and pause. Take in the view, one last mental picture of that mountaintop. Soak in the moment of feeling amazed and let it seep deep down inside of you. Feel that hand upon your shoulder telling you not to be afraid and memorize the impression made by touch. Because, this is the joyful part and you get to enjoy it. Now, take those memories with you and go back to the city. And, remember, Jesus is going with you too.
The other day, I was in the kitchen at Miriam’s and I was chopping tomatoes alongside a woman I hadn’t met before. We introduced ourselves to each other and went about chopping dozens of tomatoes to make a salsa for breakfast and we started chatting, as you do. She asked me how I had learned about Miriam’s and I asked her the same. She told me that she has been a member of that shifts team for about 3 years and one of the reasons she got started was because she wanted to meet people in the city – good people, who cared about other people. And, she made me think all the reasons I was there too.
Why do we do the mission we do? What is our motivation? Culturally, it is commonplace to volunteer. In 2011, we hit an all-time high when 64.3 million Americans volunteered nearly 7.9 billion hours. And, from what I can tell, these numbers only include civic engagement and don’t include the numbers of faith-based service. So why do we, as Christians today, serve? Is it because we want to be a good, moral person? Is it because we believe we are obligated to obey a commandment? Or, is it because we are compelled to do this work because we, like the disciples who were present on that mountain, are aware of the amazement of being in the presence of God? Might we, aware of Christ’s ability to break through to amazement, seek to serve in love in hope of being amazed over and over again?
Our text this morning is an amazing story – and, for those disciples who witnessed it all, to them, this is that wild thing that happened – I think Kimberly could relate. For those of us who haven’t had that kind of experience, it might be difficult to imagine or even believe. But, regardless of what our individual experiences have been, the one thing we might agree on is that no matter what happened, it is further evidence that God got involved, that God is with us. And, if God is involved, we have no need to be afraid of being open to those wild things that happen.