Here is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC for Transfiguration Sunday, 22 February 2004. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Exodus 34: 29 – 35, 2 Corinthians 3: 12 – 4: 2, and Luke 6: 28 – 36 (37 – 43a).
Before I moved to New York I lived in Whitesburg, Kentucky. This is a small town in a small county in the southeast corner of the state. I am reminded of this every time I drive down the Taconic parkway. Partially, the sharp turns and narrow road beds of the Taconic as well as Highways 9 and 9D are reminiscent of the roads that I traveled in that particular part of the state. Also, it is traditional to call the enclaves tucked in the various valleys of eastern Kentucky "hollows" so driving along Peekskill Hollow reminds me that I haven’t really left where I came from.
But another reminder is seen every time I turn off of Highway 301 and head south on the Taconic. There on the left hand side, just about a mile down the road is a sign indicating that I am at 1153 feet above sea level. Though I have traveled almost as far north as I have ever done, I haven’t gained or lost much altitude.
Whitesburg is at about 1200 feet above sea level. The primary difference between Whitesburg and here is that the valleys on the eastern slopes of the Appalachian Mountains are broad and shallow while the valleys and hollows of the western slopes through Kentucky and West Virginia are narrow and deep. Whitesburg may be at 1200 feet but the tops of the mountains that surround the town are another 1000 feet higher.
This makes for some interesting mornings. On some mornings it was not unusual to wake up and find the town shrouded in clouds. This is not fog, as it might be in this area but low-level clouds.
Within the clouds, life is very gray. But if you head up the mountain to the top to cross over, you pass through the clouds and it suddenly becomes very clear and very bright. Your vision clears up and you can see for miles. Sometimes there isn’t much to see, what with the valleys and hollows below shrouded in clouds but it is an awe inspiring sight and the brightness of the sky is a stark contrast to the grayness you left behind.
It may not be as bright as what Peter, James and John experienced on the mountaintop that day in the Gospel. Nor would it be like the brightness that burned Moses’ skin. But it is a brightness that takes you back for a few seconds when you pass through the clouds and forces you to readjust your sight.
The Israelites had to adjust their sight every time Moses came back from talking with God. As the Old Testament reading states, Moses’ face shined so bright that the people could not look at him and he was forced to wear a veil. The veil served two purposes; it allowed the people to look at Moses without being blinded and it prevented the people from seeing that the brightness faded over time. It was a veil that prevented them from seeing clearly.
We don’t always want to see things clearly. Sometimes we think it is better if what we see or what we are told are only half-right. Many preachers today do exactly that, in part because it glorifies them, making them seem greater than they are and in part because the people do not want to know the truth, even if the truth will in fact set them free.
There are preachers who bring in the crowds but what are they saying? In many cases, it is not the Gospel they preach but rather statements of hate and prejudice, falsities and half-truths, statements meant to divide, not join together. (Adapted from "Is That You, God?" by Norma Sherry, posted to the BuzzFlash web page on 18 February 2004.) They preach what the people want to hear. People want to hear these words because they are afraid. They are afraid of what is happening in the world and instead of working to solve the problems of the world, they seek someone to blame. They do not want to be reminded of the problems outside their safe environment of the church.
Christ walked and ate with sinners; the Pharisees reviled him for doing so. Christ made them look like fools. But, if we are to believe some of today’s more widely known preachers, we are not to reach out to the sinners, we are to exclude them.
Their religion is a religion of exclusion; their religion condemns but does not forgive. The ills of society are caused because others are wrong, not because we have not worked to solve the problems. The ills of society will go away, so it seems, if we ignore the problems, keep them away for our lives.
That is not what Jesus said or did. Yes, he opposed sin but he never condemned someone because of it. He did not exclude people or force people away. He gave people the choice to walk with him or not. The implication was obvious; to not walk with Christ was to condemn one’s self. We cannot save ourselves without Christ, but we can be lost.
The old-line churches don’t have it any easier. They practice a religion of exclusion as well. They have lost ground to the more modern churches because they have failed to keep up. They hold on to the old ways, of expectations and structures designed for another time and place. There are fights between those that seek modern solutions and those that want to hold on to the old beliefs.
How can we expect to bring people in if all they see or read is the trouble the churches are going through? How can we expect people to come to a church if it is filled with internal squabbling? Don’t kid yourself, people can sense when there is squabbling, even if the people hide it. The rise of modern or more contemporary denominations is as much about the problems of the old as it is selling the new.
But changing the olden ways and making something new doesn’t mean that there will be changes.
The rise in membership in churches today is in the "modern" church, the one that markets the Gospel to the people. But marketing always removes a lot of the context of the message; marketing is designed to get you to try the product. The problem, at least I see it, is that what passes for new provides nothing in the way of substance. And I think this fact, more than any others, is lost in the message of many churches today. The Gospel is not a product that you buy and sell and I fear that in the next few years as people find out the shallowness of the message being preached, they are going to discard it and throw it away.
People go to these churches because it is easy; there are no demands placed on them. The problems of the world are not their problems; others caused them and others must fix them. As long as we are in these modern churches, we feel safe. These modern churches preach a Gospel of the here and now, with fear for the future.
Even Peter was not immune to the idea of a Gospel in the here and now. His reaction to the appearance of Moses and Elijah with Jesus was to build a monument celebrating the event. He was focused on what was happening now, not what was to come. And when they came down from the mountain, they still were more interested in themselves than they were in helping others.
Jesus’ anger at his disciples for their failure to help the epileptic child may have been as much for what was going on between the disciples as it was for their lack of faith. In Luke 9:46 we read about a dispute among the disciples about who would be the greatest. Despite everything Jesus was telling them, the disciples were still interested in their own standing, not the result of their work. Jesus pointed out that it was the least of all whom would receive the greatest standing in God’s kingdom. I think that this message gets lost in today’s church, as it did back then in the early days of Christ’s mission.
It may seem hopeless, to be a part of church that some see as selfish and self-centered or greedy, bigoted, and exclusive. But Paul points out that there is hope and that we should not lose heart. Those who heard the words of Moses clung to the old ways and to them there was a veil hiding the light of God. Paul points out we no longer need to hide the light of God. Through Christ’s death and sacrifice, the veil has been removed. We are able to clearly see what God wants us to see, if we are willing to look.
Bill Wilson was the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. He was smart enough that Thomas Edison wanted to hire him even though he did not have a college degree. But rather than work for Edison, Wilson chose to work in the stock market. But it was not the stock market crash of 1929 that brought him down. Long before the market crashed, alcoholism had destroyed his life. One doctor told him that alcoholism was a disease without a cure (an interesting diagnosis at a time when it was still considered a moral problem). One can only imagine Bill Wilson being told that he was incurable and thus beyond hope. The noted Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung felt that the only cure for alcoholism would come through spiritual experience. This must have also been reassuring to Bill Wilson, as he was a man who did not believe in God.
But when he hit bottom, Wilson in all of his unbelief cried out, "If there be a God, let him show himself!" At this Wilson reported that the room was filled with a blazing light and that he was filled with ecstasy and that he felt like a new person. (From a note in the 24 February 2004 issue of Christian Century. The note was taken from My Name is Bill by Susan Cheever and printed by Simon & Schuster.)
The presence of God in our lives opens our eyes, it gives us hope and shows a promise for the future. We may not encounter God or Christ as Bill Wilson or Paul did. But there will be enlightenment in our hearts and in our minds. That day on the mountaintop, Jesus showed Peter, James and John the beginning of a new day, a new morning in their own lives.
Those who preach the Gospel for their own gains or falsify its meaning or cover it with false truths are not unique to this day and again. The same things were said about Paul. But Paul stated that he had no need to be crafty or deceitful; he had no reason to lie and he certainly wasn’t doing it for personal gain. He relied on the truth of the Gospel, a Gospel that was open to all that choose to hear it, not those who would be denied the right to hear it. He boasted in his belief in God and what the Gospel stood for; shouldn’t we do the same?
Nowadays, I don’t wake up to many foggy or cloudy mornings. Some mornings there is some fog but it quickly dissipates. Each day though, I see the sun come over the ridge and begin a new day. On this day some two thousand years ago, there was a new morning. It was not a new morning in the sense of a calendar but rather a new morning in the time of man. It was the announcement by God that Jesus was His Son and was sent to save the world, even if we did not want to be saved. As we go out into the world this afternoon and as we work among our friends and neighbors, strangers and enemies, may they see in us that same light that shone when Christ announced to the world that his mission was among us. Let this be the start of our new morning in our lives as well.