A Sermon from the North Yarmouth Congregational Church, UCC
A sermon offered by the Rev. Nancy J. White in the public worship of the First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, North Yarmouth, Maine on February 26, 2017.
The primary text was Matthew 17:1-9.
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. 2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. 3 Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. 4 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I[a] will make three dwellings[b] here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 5 While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved;[c] with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 6 When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. 7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” 8 And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
9 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.”
Today’s gospel story is called ‘the transfiguration’ meaning the metamorphosis and is found in all three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke with only slight variations in the telling. You may recall that the written versions of the gospels were totally by word of mouth for at least 30 years after Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. For all three gospel writers, this moment in recollection was a moment of epiphany for the three disciples who accompanied Jesus . As with all epiphany moments in our lives, it takes some reflection and it may be a while before the full significance of said moment is understood.
Some scholars debate whether or not this story is actually factual but whether or not it is factual is not really the point here. It was a moment when something profoundly important was revealed to Peter, James and John and in the telling to all those who heard it retold again and again. This moment in the days, weeks and years after Jesus was no longer a human being walking and talking with them, helped them to realize that they had put their complete faith and trust not just in an ordinary human being but in the Divine. It affirmed for them what they had confessed earlier in Matthew 16 when Jesus asked “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter replied, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” The disciples took a ‘leap of faith’ confessing Jesus as the Christ and now they see it for themselves.
Epiphany moments don’t happen too often in our gospels and are hard to retell. Note that Jesus told Peter, James and John not to tell others until after he was raised from the dead. Perhaps he knew that it would be an amazing experience that would be difficult to describe to others – sometimes the telling does not really do justice to the actual experience.
Epiphany moments or what I like to call ‘God moments’ don’t happen too often in my experience. AND they are hard to describe because what you are describing is an indescribable experience of the divine, of God. Because it is hard to live through another’s experience of the divine, people sometimes hesitate to share them. Today I am going to attempt to describe the God moments in my life – the ones that are so amazing to me that I will never forget them.
In 1986, I moved to MA and took on familiar roles in music ministry, Christian education and church leadership in the local church. I enjoyed sharing my gift of singing by active participation in the church choir, as a soloist for worship, weddings and funerals and by leading the children’s choir. It was not until my grandmother died that first December in New England that I consciously experienced God in my singing. I was scheduled to sing Christmas Eve at my brother’s church – losing my Nana was a shock and I didn’t think I could sing because what usually happens when I cry is that my throat closes up and I can barely squeak out any sounds at all. But that night, God sang a duet with me. It was effortless and I can only recount it as pure Joy – my first conscious experience of God’s indwelling presence.
I have now been to Haiti twice and both times I experienced God moments. The first was at a medical clinic that can best be described as a mob scene as people with such a need that I had not seen before pressed in on the mission team to be seen and offered what little we had. It bordered on claustrophobic. As I stood under the heat of the midday equator sun, stuffing fish oil pills into baggies for distribution, I prayed aloud in desperation, ‘Jesus, help us’. Suddenly my eyes were awash with tears, the tension drained out of my body and I immediately felt an amazing sense of peace. When I reflected on this later, I realized I was in the very real presence of the Divine, of the Christ and I came to a new understanding of the living water Jesus offered freely to those who would accept it for that day my tears were living water which quenched my very soul.
In preparation for my second trip in February 2014, our leader, Hein, had told me that they might ask me to preach as that was their custom with visiting pastors. I was surprised because being very conservative theologically and culturally, they tend to not acknowledge a woman pastor and had not done so on my first trip. Pleasantly surprised I prepared a brief message in anticipation. Sunday morning we went to church and Hein introduced the mission team giving each of our names. He introduced Bob as ‘pastor’ Bob and then me as Nancy. I have to tell you I was extremely hurt by the omission and fought to maintain my composure. They did not ask either of us to speak and after worship, Hein offered me his sincere apology for not introducing me as a pastor. The next day I was again at a clinic and as a pastor my role was to pray with people as they arrived. This clinic was the exact opposite of the one on my first trip in that it was a much slower pace rather than the mob scene at the first, for this one people came just a few at a time. In my limited kreyol, I asked each person if I might pray for them and tried to understand what was ailing them. And then I placed my hands on their shoulder and head and prayed like I don’t think I have ever prayed before. I prayed in the power of Jesus’ name for healing for each person, for clean water and nourishment for their bodies and for them to know the love of God. As I prayed I recalled how Jesus gave the power to heal and cast out demons when he sent the twelve out and indeed in those moments I knew that Jesus has also given that power to me to pray in his name. It was at once exhilarating and humbling and again my eyes were awash with tears as I felt Jesus’ hand touch me. I claimed my authority as pastor and God affirmed my calling.
I strongly feel that these moments happened because I was aware of and open to God’s presence – Emmanuel – God with us and I will remember them always. Not everyone has these moments or at least not very often and I don’t believe it has anything to do with one’s faith or lack thereof but rather being receptive and open to God’s presence in your life.
Be open to God’s presence in your life. That was the experience of some of those who went on the Communion Ministry. For those of you helping with our Wednesday evening Lenten services – be open and aware of the presence of the Holy Spirit in your participation. Sunday worship leaders during Lent – prepare for being with God’s presence. Pray about it. Be ready. Be aware of that inner feeling that brings you closer to the Divine. As you participate in our Palm Sunday dramatic presentation of the events of Holy Week, imagine yourself as being there during that time with Jesus and his followers – be in awe of what it must have been like for them. I know many of you are participating in that. During Holy Week, take time for daily prayer and come to worship with your church family on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday – immerse yourself in God’s love as much as possible. As you participate in our lay-led worship after Easter, remember that God is always present with you both during your preparation and your participation. God is with us always. If we do not perceive it then we may not be open to and aware of it. God is always with us.
Just as God’s voice from the cloud directed Peter, James and John to Jesus and said ‘Listen! to him’, I believe God calls each of us to listen to Jesus through studying his life and ways and praying for enlightenment and understanding. I pray that indeed Jesus will light our journey and guide us through the joys of these days. May each of us open our hearts and minds and allow Jesus to touch us with his presence and his love. Amen.