"The Man Behind the Curtain"

Sunday sermon from March 2, 2014
Text: Matthew 17:1-9
Preached by the Rev. Matt Gaventa

So, I don’t know about you, but I had just about had it up to here with the Sermon on the Mount. Last week Carol Ferguson in this pulpit suggested that to people who suggest that those chapters of Matthew are their favorite part of scripture her response was often, “Really?,” and I have to admit that I tend to agree. Not that it’s not important. Not that it’s somehow invalid. Not that it’s somehow tangential to Matthew’s overall program; quite the contrary, for weeks we have been living in the very center of Matthew’s program, wherein Jesus makes such concrete and absolute demands upon his disciples – which, you know, theoretically, kinda-maybe-sorta includes us – we have been in this text that would have us be such impossibly better versions of ourselves, that would have us kill off those parts of our own selfish desires that we hold most dear; one imagines the disciples at the end of Jesus’s sermon staring at each other with that look of bleak hopelessness that says “Hey, who needs a drink? It’s been a long day; let’s go home, open up a bottle of something, kick back, relax, see what’s on TV.” I, for one, could use a bit of a break from all the “Thou Shalt Nots” and “Truly I say unto yous.”

And so as if to anticipate our need for a night off, the lectionary skips ahead to this day in the Christian Calendar, the last Sunday before Lent, Transfiguration Sunday, upon which we jump to Matthew’s account of Jesus leading his disciples up the mountaintop and putting on a show. After all, they have been working so hard, preaching and walking and healing and walking and feeding and walking and walking and walking and walking and so, not unlike the Little League coach taking the team out to Pizza Hut after the game, Jesus takes these chosen few up the mountaintop and this time the show’s on him. And it’s Transfiguration Sunday, so you know what’s about to happen: Matthew says that Jesus changed in front of their eyes – the Greek word is “metamorphisized” – that his face shone bright like the sun and that even his clothes became as white as light, like that nice guy walking through the valley with them turns out to be instead a figure of pure radiant light; and if that wasn’t enough of a show, then, suddenly, Moses and Elijah appear from somewhere beyond the grave and they all start chatting; it’s like this particular mountaintop is where the history of the Jewish people comes to life in some interactive animatronic exhibit, like we’ve walked into the Biblical equivalent of Colonial Williamsburg and here’s Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry and our tour guide is asking them questions.

And so Peter makes a not unreasonable request – considering all they’d been through, considering all the preaching and the healing and the feeding and don’t forget the walking, considering all of it, finding himself on this mountaintop watching what seems to be a Biblically-themed laser light show and he thinks, Well, this is fabulous! I mean, this is the seat of luxury; I mean, who doesn’t like a nice vacation to the mountains every now and then; this is what I needed, just a little bit of time away, just to put my feet up and relax and see a show … You know what? Let’s build a house here. We could, right? I mean, we’ve been at it for a while now and, well, isn’t it about time we let somebody else have a chance? Whaddya say, Jesus? You, me, Elijah, Moses … James and John, if you guys want in … we’ll just kick back, you guys do your thing: Jesus, this is clearly who you really are; Moses, Elijah, great to have you guys back; clearly this is where the real business of God is taking place and you know there’s no business like show business so you all do your thing and I’m glad to be the audience.

Now, even if you don’t want to live on a mountaintop, I think we can all see the allure of trying to present the Gospel of Jesus Christ as a laser-light show. In fact, this weekend, thousands of American Christians have flocked to exactly such a thing, the new release of the movie Son of God, basically a re-edited version of the Gospel narrative from the Bible miniseries that came out last Spring. Now, I haven’t seen either the miniseries or the film, so I’m not here to nitpick the differences between the story they tell onscreen and the story we hear in the text, although I presume there are some. You may know better than me. Rather I simply am curious to observe how quick we are to act as though the Gospel story were something that we could just watch from the comfort of a dark theatre, preferably one with stadium seating. Thursday night, movie theaters across the country were booked solid to see advance previews of this thing. In Charlotte some church or group of churches bought out a 27-screen multiplex, and I’m sure that this afternoon churchgoers across America will flock to this movie by the van-ful, and I get it, I mean, the task of Christian living is hard and there is no shortage of healing and feeding and walking and how lovely is it on those afternoons when you can just sit backup and put your feet up and watch a movie and still call it discipleship. It’s like I’m back in high school European history and it’s right after midterms and all we’re doing in class is watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail and the great part is you can totally pretend that you’re learning something.

Until the movie stops and the teacher asks you a question. Or, in Peter’s case, God shows up, in a cloud – Matthew loves the Old Testament, where God always shows up in clouds – God shows up and bellows, “This is my Son, the Beloved,” and if you’re Peter there’s no great controversy here; I mean, sure, it’s not everyday that God appears in a cloud but Peter has already confessed Jesus to be the Son of God so it’s not like there’s new information on the table, but then God says “Listen to Him” and Peter just loses it. James and John, too, really; Matthew says they fell to the ground overcome by fear. Curiously enough, when Mark tells the story of the Transfiguration it’s the vision of Jesus in white that causes the disciples to become afraid, but here in Matthew they’re all fine and good until God speaks to them – “Listen to Him!,” God says – they’re perfectly comfortable watching the show until it turns out that the show is watching them. It was all well and good when it was just up there on the screen but now it’s coming at them, now it’s the Gospel of Jesus Christ in 3D, and like all 3D movies, it makes you look funny, and it costs more…

Actually, I’ve only been to one 3D movie in my own living memory. It was something like the summer of 2003, long before 3D reclaimed its throne in movie theaters across the country, but on a hot day at the King’s Dominion theme park just outside of Richmond, a group of friends and I decided that we needed a break from the sun and so we took advantage of the short line for the SpongeBob SquarePants 3D Experience. It wasn’t exactly a ride, but it was one of those theaters where the chairs move around to simulate whatever motion is happening onscreen, and that was the day when I learned that my eyes don’t really focus well with 3D glasses – I just saw two overlapping planes of images and they’d never come together – and combine that with the seat moving underneath me, well, I spent most of the film cowering on the floor. One might argue that I had the most rational possible reaction to seeing the SpongeBob SquarePants 3D Experience. But regardless: I’ve never put those glasses on again, and I never will. Not for Avatar. Not for Gravity. Nothing. So I get Peter cowering on the floor. But it’s so much easier to watch the show on the screen than it is to follow when it starts moving you around.

“Listen to him!,” God says, and I think in that moment something crystallizes for Peter, like it just occurs to him for the first time that the long call to discipleship that Jesus had preached so many times, the demanding and exhausting words of the Sermon on the Mount, the call to repentance and reconciliation that Jesus had been making at every turn, it’s like just now on this mountaintop it occurs to Peter that all of it actually might involve him, too, that it all might make demands on him, too, like it wasn’t just a nice story he was watching but something that was moving him around. And it would be easy to poke fun at his slightly overdue epiphany if we weren’t all all walking around in that same half-dressed state, like, you know, Sunday morning we all go to the show and talk about justice and peace and love and mercy but it’s not like on Monday we actually have to advocate for justice or live as peacemakers on Tuesday or love someone on Thursday or God forbid, Saturday, find room for mercy except maybe it’s just exactly like that when God says “Listen to him” and the whole thing jumps off the screen. And it’s not just that I find justice and peacemaking personally inconvenient – although, let’s be honest, I do – it’s that I find myself physically incapable of living into this demand. I mean, you can give me the glasses and put me in the seat, but my eyes just won’t focus the images together; I can’t make it work, this Gospel in three dimensions, this Gospel in any dimension that includes me playing along; I just can’t, we just can’t, we can’t see to pull it off.

But then, something unexpected. Something unique to Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration: with Peter and James and John cowering on the ground in fear, the Gospel reports that Jesus came and touched them, and instructed them to rise and be unafraid, and that when they looked up all they saw was Jesus – no clouds, no blinding white, no Moses and Elijah – just Jesus, alone. Because of a touch. This whole laser-light show, visions of the dead, God speaking from a cloud, and the whole thing resolves to a touch. And more than that: throughout the Gospel, and particularly in Matthew, Jesus’ touch is an instrument of healing. By his touch he has made the lame to walk; by his touch he has made the hungry to be fed; by his touch he has made the blind to see. In fact one strains anywhere in this Gospel to find an instance of Jesus’ touch that does not immediately come with healing. And so I think of Peter, on the floor in terror. I think of myself, on the floor, unable to reconcile the Gospel in three dimensions; I think of all of us who cannot see our way to lives of faithful discipleship. And yet Jesus touched him, and the clouds parted. Jesus touched him, and the visions receded. Jesus touched him, and his eyes were healed, and then and only then does Peter see Jesus in his true form: not just the nice guy walking around the valley, but neither only figure of pure radiant light summiting the mountaintop; but rather, the two in combination, the one and the same, the radiant power of God living and breathing among us, serving among us, healing us with a human touch. That’s the power in this text – not in its abstract divinity but rather in its simple humanity – that it works with a touch – and that with a simple touch it is not Jesus but rather Peter, and the disciples, and all of us gathered on that mountain, who come back down to the valley forever transfigured.

Now, I still can’t see 3D movies. But every once in a while, when the clouds part; every once in a while, when the light shines in just right direction; every once in a while, when the Spirit comes with a touch; every once in a while I get a glimpse of justice. Every once in a while we all see the outline of peace. Every once in a while we all see a trace of mercy. I think this is the path we walk as those transfigured on the mountaintop, after which it is not simple enough to say that the show involves us and moves us and calls us into service but also that the one who calls us is there at out side with a touch; the one who calls us is there making our eyes to see, making our lips to speak, making our legs to walk. That’s the Gospel of this text: not simply that we are called by this God on a mountaintop but that God does not stay on the mountaintop, that God lives and abides with each of us down here in the valley, that God transforms and sustains each of us down here in the valley, that God heals and redeems each of us down here in the valley, in every moment of creation.

So this afternoon after church you may make your way with thousands of Christians around the country to a movie screen and a showing of Son of God – I’m sure it’s playing down in Lynchburg somewhere – or maybe you’ve already seen the full miniseries and you have no need to see it again. And I will be curious for your thoughts and I hope you will let me know what you see. But don’t forget that if you want to see Jesus Christ at work this afternoon you don’t have to go to the movies. You don’t need parking or popcorn or special glasses or advance tickets. All it takes is the courage to look at the world with transfigured eyes, to see creation in its every dimension. Don’t forget to see not just the unbearable decay of our bodies but also the incarnate healing of Jesus Christ made manifest in hospital volunteers and blood drives and parish nurses and underpaid nursing staff and all those who touch us with the touch of the Holy. Don’t forget to see not just the overwhelming despair of poverty and injustice but also the incarnate work of Jesus Christ made manifest in meals on wheels drivers and food bank coordinators and public defenders and political activists and all those who touch us with the touch of the Holy. Don’t forget to see, in just a few moments, not just the simple, ordinary elements of bread and juice but also the incarnate work of Jesus Christ in the act of public communion, transforming not just the bread we break but each of us ourselves, helping us serve one another, helping us love one another, helping us touch one another with the touch of the holy. Go to the movies if you want to. But don’t forget to see the work of Jesus Christ in its every dimension.

And how could you forget, when God so insistently helps us remember?