Sunday, March 6, 2011

I Thought He Was Born In a Barn

Sermon, Sunday, March 6, 2011
by Katie Mulligan

Scripture Readings: Psalm 99, Exodus 24:12-18, Matthew 17:1-9

Today is Transfiguration Sunday, a day of glory and light and golden sunbeams in our church calendar.  A day of gleaming white robes (although I don’t dare purchase white robes with all the chaos in my life!).

The Lord said to Moses, “Come on up on the mountain and I will give you the law and the commandment.” So Moses and Joshua went up the mountain, leaving Aaron and Hur in charge of the people below. A cloud covered the mountain for six days, and the glory of the Lord settled on the mountain. On the seventh day, the Lord called Moses further up the mountain. The appearance of the Lord was like devouring fire, and the people below could see all the flash and glamour going on at the top of the hill. For forty days and nights Moses was on that mountain—that’s nearly six weeks! And the people below grew more restless—and they built an idol, a golden calf. But that’s a story for another day.

The Lord gave Moses the law and the commandments amidst a forty-day chat, complete with fireworks and drama for the people gathered below. And the people followed that law and the commandments about as well as you would expect any group of people to do (or that is, not well at all).

Then one day the Lord Jesus said to Peter and James and John “Come on up on the mountain.” And they went away by themselves. On the mountain, Jesus was transfigured into a glamorous figure, dazzling white clothing, skin glowing like the sun. And suddenly Moses and Elijah appeared to have a little talk with Jesus.

This reminds me, of course, of the end of Star Wars VI, The Return of the Jedi, when Luke Skywalker is visited by the spirits of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, and Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker. For those of you who are not Star Wars fans, Darth Vader is the bad guy Luke fought with lightsabers for three feature films, a representative of the strangling empire which sought to defeat the rebels and their allies: the Jedi. But in the end, Darth Vader revealed himself to be Luke’s father, and found redemption through his death, thus restoring all that is right in the universe.

Anyway. Jesus. With his disciples on the mountain, dazzling white robes and glowing skin. Elijah and Moses, these two great prophets/rock stars of the Hebrew scriptures. And Peter, in complete awe of what he saw, announced that he would build a house for Moses and Elijah and Jesus!  It is almost as if Peter saw Elijah and Moses and longed to just stay here in this triumphant moment. You can build a house for each, and perhaps they will stay. You can visit them on the mountaintop when it is good to be there. If you build it they will come. If you build it, maybe this moment will not pass away into other, more difficult moments. The glory of the Lord abounds, and when you feel the rush of it, it’s hard to let it go.

And then the Cloud of the Lord covered the mountain and declared, “This is my son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” And Peter and John and James did what any of us should do if a cloud speaks to you—they fell to the ground and trembled a bit. Until Jesus touched them and said, “Do not be afraid.” Do not be afraid—the very words of the angel of the Lord speaking to Mary when she was about to conceive this Christ child. Do not be afraid of the cloud. Do not be afraid of me. Do not be afraid of what lies ahead. And then he said nothing at all about the dwellings Peter proposed. He just said, “Ssssssh! Don’t tell anyone about this…” And they walked down the mountain back to whatever passed for daily life for itinerant followers of Jesus.

So the Lord gave Moses the law and the commandments. And then the Lord gave Peter and James and John the Messiah. We have the law and the commandments, and then we have the fulfillment of God’s covenant with us. Flashes of fire and mountain sized clouds, but also the intimacy of quiet chats with the Lord. This God once again proves to be a lover of paradox. Divine, yet human. Life reclaimed through death. Three and One. Unbounded freedom yet bound to the cross. The law and grace.

The other day I posted a comment on my Facebook page about God’s temper tantrums in the Hebrew scriptures, and a friend commented that “temper tantrum” might be a little too anthropomorphic to describe God’s actions. And yet how much more anthropomorphic can my words be when describing a God who became human? This is a God who leeched the calcium from Mary’s bones and teeth in the womb. We are left with both the glory of our transfigured Lord and the bleeding enfleshed human on the cross. These two seemingly irreconcilable manifestations of God might indeed drive us to the brink of faithlessness on a good day—and most of us prefer one or the other, don’t we? God as transcendent glory, speaking from clouds, flashing fire. Or God as embodied flesh, working with his hands, walking with his feet.

Those poor disciples, awestruck—thunderstruck, perhaps?  And what else are we supposed to do when God arrives in full supernatural power and glory? The psalmist writes, “The Lord is king; let the peoples tremble! Holy is He!” Awe, glory, fear and trembling—what else are we poor disciples to do?

My son and I went to the Princeton University library a while back. They had something I needed for my studies, and my son wanted to know if they had ancient scrolls you could look at. So we went inside and walked into the ancient scroll room (and yeah, they got one of those), and the librarian took some time to tell my son about all the scrolls you needed a PhD to be allowed to touch. On the way to the library we walked by the University Chapel, which might be better termed a Cathedral. It is made of impressive grey stone and seats a thousand or so people. He stared up at this gothic creation and said, “Whoa! Was Jesus born here?” I said, “No, honey. Jesus was born in a barn. This is just the house built for people to worship him.” My boy looked high at the building again and asked, “Why did they make it so big?”

He is not fond of big churches. One time we went with friends to a gargantuan church—a non-denominational, high-spirited, elaborate campus of a church, with thousands of members and regulars, and several services throughout the week. When we walked in the door, we registered in their computer for Sunday school—we had matching badges to make sure I picked up the right child. To get to the classrooms downstairs, a built-in, color-coded tube slide awaited—the children dropped down the rabbit hole, straight into their classrooms. I was a bit impressed. When I picked him up from Sunday school an hour later, he looked stressed, and he told me, “Mom. When we get to New Jersey, we’re not going to any church with more than 20 people in it.”  In many ways, this tiny church has been the fulfillment of that hope.

There is something so human about reacting in big ways to the splendor of God—big buildings and scads of people, feasts piled high with baked goods and casseroles, mission trips to far off places—big, bold Christianity with a Capital Cross. But Jesus didn’t even respond to Peter’s impetuous offer to build him a shrine. And Moses went down the mountain, melted the golden calf, and made the people drink it (an over-reaction, I think). Jesus’ gentle instruction, “Do not be afraid,” accompanied by human touch—what does this mean for us?

I read a little further into this morning’s psalm—after the part about the earth trembling in light of God’s glory and the earth shaking at the Lord enthroned on a cherubim (big winged creature). Just a few lines down: “Extol the Lord our God; worship at his footstool.”

Perhaps one might envision worshiping at the footstool of God as an act of dramatic obeisance—laid out prostrate on the ground, nose pressed to the earth. I have little idea what the psalmist intended with this line, but the footstool reminds me of my mother. When I was a girl, my mother embroidered pictures. For a time she was not well, and she crafted her way back to wholeness, one stitch at a time, re-learning to use her hands with French knots and fancy stitches. I was in awe of her art—each stitch so carefully made, tiny yet deliberately placed in the fabric. She told me stories of her grandmother, who spoke German, and the sayings she used to teach my mother to sew. Probably you’ve heard, “A stitch in time saves nine.” But the one I remember most particularly was, “Long string, lazy girl.” For if you know anything about sewing, it is tempting to use a long thread to avoid frequent knots and threading. But the longer the string, the more tangled the stitches get, until all you have is a mess that must be redone. So, long string, lazy girl. Make the extra effort to create beauty—meticulousness is a virtue (although not one I learned well).

I sat near my mother’s feet to watch her craft. For a very long time she worked on a flower pot full of spring flowers of color you could imagine. One day it was finished, and she framed it. It was a work of art, and one of my clearest childhood memories.

So perhaps to worship at the footstool of God is to sit near the Creator’s feet and watch in awe and joy at the making of this life. Perhaps the law and the commandments were handed down like my great-grandmother’s wisdom: “Long string, lazy girl.” 

I think sometimes God cannot help but shine with glory—and we humans have a tendency to get carried away in the face of splendor. This tiny church, with its homey comforts and imperfect ways may even be too much—Jesus never answered Peter about that little cabin on the mountain. We’re supposed to go out from here, to follow Christ into the world, taking with us the memory of sitting at the footstool of God, watching the Almighty stitch together each tiny, desperately important, piece of creation. And of course God glows while working this hobby—we all shine when we do what we love.

1 comment:

  1. Great imagery, as usual. You have such a knack of bringing the eternal to life! Children are really traditionalists. My granddaughter, age 7, was given the choice between a tiny church with about 20 people in the service in an old, old building with creaky floors, and one other young family, and a newer, larger, "exciting" church with a praise band, and lots of other kids. She chose the little old church with the "old-fashioned" service. She said the newer church didn't feel right. It was too noisy and there were too many people. What does that say to the "bigger is better" faction?