Sermon: Fire and Ash
Text: Matthew 17:1-9
Speaker: Mark Rupp
Last weekend, Columbus Mennonite hosted one of the mid-year gatherings of the Central District Conference, the conference within Mennonite Church USA to which we belong. These gatherings are like mini-conventions, a chance to gather for fellowship, for worship, for resource sharing, and for dreaming together about where God is leading the Church.
As part of the gathering, Matt Pritchard, the recently hired Associate Conference Minister of Emerging Communities of Faith, led a workshop to introduce us to the kind of work he will be doing in his new role. Not only will he be focusing on helping to grow new and emerging communities of faith, he plans to work on what he calls “revitalizing” congregations, that is, helping communities of faith re-connect to the transforming Spirit of God and discern how the Spirit is calling them toward new horizons.
As part of his workshop, he did an exercise that I want us all to do here this morning in an abridged way. He first invited us to consider this prompt: “What are three feelings you hope people feel after visiting your church?” To help us out and grease the wheels a bit, Matt put up a slide that contained a word cloud with all kinds of different emotions, not just the obvious answers to his question. We had a bit of fun considering how a church might cause someone to feel emotions like “schadenfreude,” which for those who don’t know is a German word that means pleasure derived from someone else’s misfortune.
I don’t have a word cloud to show you, but before I tell you what three words I came up with, I want you to take a moment to consider your own response. “What three feelings do you hope people feel after visiting our congregation?” Or, perhaps more honestly, what three feelings do YOU hope to feel after spending Sunday morning with this community?
[leave a few seconds of silence]
As our small group began to share our chosen feeling words, we quickly realized that our choices were reflections of what we hoped to feel, not just some hypothetical other. Perhaps that is true for you as well.
My first two words came to me fairly quickly: I hope people feel welcomed and challenged. I hope that anyone who walks through our doors or logs on to our services feels welcomed into our community, whether they are visiting for the first time or have been here for years. But just as important for me, I hope that we balance welcome with challenge, that we are a community that provides sanctuary to all who need it while also pushing us to consider the call of God to go beyond these walls, a congregation that helps people know peace and causes us to pursue justice.
My third choice for a feeling I hope people experience within this community is one that I saw on Matt’s word cloud that grabbed my attention: enchanted.
When you all show up on a Sunday morning, I hope you feel welcomed and challenged, but perhaps even more so, I hope you feel enchanted, swept up by word and song, sign and symbol, silence and sound. I hope the Spirit speaks through all of your senses, its songs of grace and hymns of peace making your souls stir and swell. I hope that what we do when we gather points us toward something greater than the world we think we know but that also arises from within that same world and helps us see it in a new way.
I know the word enchanted has some baggage from its association with the worlds of fantasy, and perhaps “inspired” might be a better, safer choice. Maybe it is the musician in me, or maybe it is that the worlds of fantasy are safe places for me, but I can’t let go of the hope of enchantment.
Or maybe it’s because the experience of disenchantment feels far too familiar and real.
For better or for worse, those were my three words. What were yours? How would you explain your choices? Do they relate to or complement one another? Or do they stand in contrast and paradox?
But Matt’s exercise didn’t end there. After we had shared and discussed our three feeling words, he asked us to consider what each of us would do the next time we gather to help create those feelings we had chosen.
Oh…we actually have to do something and not just talk about it or hope for it?
In some ways, working to help people experience welcome and challenge was easy to consider how we can do that. Certainly they are things we should always keep working toward, but it was fairly easy to come up with concrete examples of what we could do.
But enchanted? How do we work toward those kinds of experiences without becoming emotionally manipulative? It’s one thing to make sure we have adequate greeters and ushers to make people feel welcome, or to create options for Sunday School classes that tackle challenging topics, but it’s a whole other thing to know how to help people experience the enchanting movement of the Spirit or the awe-inspiring revelation of God.
We can point people toward the mountaintops. We can even walk with them to their peaks. But at the end of the day, we can’t make anyone glow with divine radiance or summon long dead prophets and sages to make people fall to their knees in wonder.
And when we read stories like these, of Jesus being transfigured on the mountaintop, we might not know what to do with them. Perhaps our disenchanted skepticism kicks in to write it off as just another miracle story the early writers added in to bolster their claims for Jesus’ divinity. Or perhaps we long to live in an enchanted world full of transcendent experiences like this one, but our experiences look nothing like this mountaintop experience, which leaves us feeling like maybe we really are missing something.
Our passage this morning begins with the phrase, “Six days later…”, which should always make us wonder what happened six days earlier, especially if we feel we might be missing something. In the previous chapter, the disciples are beginning to grow in their faith in Jesus as he continues to teach and travel around the countryside. At one point he asks them, “Who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter quickly replies, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
To this, Jesus tells Simon Peter that he is blessed because this was revealed to him not by flesh and blood but by God. I don’t think this exchange happened on a mountaintop, but I do have to imagine that Simon Peter’s face is glowing at this point. There is enough of a transformation in him that Jesus tells him he shall just be called “Peter,” the rock on which the church will be built.
We don’t know what all Peter has experienced with Jesus up to this point. Yes, if we follow Matthew’s gospel, it probably included a number of miraculous events, but there were also probably lots of long conversations about confusing teachings, many evenings sharing bread and wine around tables, and a good number of hours spent walking side-by-side along dusty roads. From the breadth of these experiences, the truth of who Jesus is was revealed to Peter.
In that moment when Jesus tells him that he is blessed because of what has been revealed to him, maybe Peter feels like he’s finally arrived. But it’s not more than a few verses later that he is being harshly rebuked by Jesus for refusing to believe that the Messiah will be killed. If we are anything like Peter, this whole following Jesus thing will probably feel like it’s always a few steps forward, a few steps back.
Jesus has a few more things to say at the end of Chapter 16, but it is with this sting still on Peter’s heart that we enter the story of the transfiguration. It is “six days later,” and Peter is probably still wondering where he went wrong as he follows Jesus and a few others up the side of the mountain.
Maybe it happened all of a sudden, or maybe it came on slowly. We don’t know. We just know that on that mountain Jesus was revealed in a new way, transfigured so that his divine nature shone through alongside Elijah and Moses.
With a voice slightly more timid than in the previous chapter, Peter says, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will set up three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” It’s almost as if Peter wants to stay there, basking in this new glory that is being revealed. Those few steps back nearly forgotten, this new revelation probably felt like a whole leap forward, maybe once again feeling like maybe he had finally arrived.
But before he can even finish, a voice cuts Peter off. “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” The glowing radiance and the visions of prophets were one thing, but the voice from heaven sends the disciples to the ground.
There are a lot of parallels in Matthew’s gospel that set up Jesus as a kind of new Moses, and this story is just one more way that the writer makes those connections. In Exodus, Moses goes up the mountain with his most trusted aide to receive the words of God, and this experience made his face shine. And when he returned, the people asked Moses to cover his face and to serve as their mediator between them and God because they were afraid.
Here Jesus comes over to the disciples who had fallen to the ground, he touches them and tells them, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
This revelation was for them, a special moment that they were to hold close to their hearts until after Jesus had been raised from the dead. In this ongoing dance of trying to follow Jesus with its steps forward and back, with its moments of epiphany followed closely by gross misunderstanding and rebuke, this intimate moment of transfiguration and revelation was a bulwark against the crushing realities that lay ahead of them at the bottom of the mountain, along the path toward Jerusalem and the cross.
In Matthew’s gospel there is a little more distance before we get to the events of holy week, but in the lectionary, Transfiguration Sunday always falls on the final Sunday before Lent. This coming week, we will begin our Lenten journey with Ash Wednesday, marking one another with dust as a reminder of where we have come from and where we will one day return.
But before we get to Ash Wednesday, we hear the story of transfiguration and ponder that holy fire of divine revelation. It comes to these disciples in a grand way, on a mountaintop with radiant light and a divine voice, but we can’t forget that it also came to them along the roads, around the tables, and through many voices in conversations, debates, whispers, prayers, and parables. Before Peter stood on that mountain top, he stood along the road and was called blessed because the truth of the Messiah was revealed to him in more subtle ways.
It can be easy to fall into disenchantment if we believe that the fire of revelation only appears on the mountaintop, or that it only happens to a select few. We all probably long for those mountaintop experiences, and some of us can probably recount our own stories of divine revelation.
But regardless of what altitude we are at when God meets us or how clearly we feel that fire, we have to remember that we cannot stay there forever. Whether big or small, loud or soft, clear or mysterious, the God we meet along the way is always beckoning us onward to deeper peace, greater justice, wider hopes, and more sacred love for ourselves and all of Creation. The holy spaces on the mountains and the valleys can offer us respite and renewal for what lies ahead, but we cannot allow them to become idols to stagnation.
For many of us, when we think about our own mountaintop experiences of faith, we might think of camp. These week long experiences of being surrounded by other young people wrestling with similar questions of faith often seem to create their own world. And it is a world that can be hard to leave. Yet I’m reminded of a banner that hung at the back of one of the main gathering spaces in the camp I attended when I was younger. It read: “From the altars of the past, take the fire, not the ash.”
Our Lenten theme this year is Pilgrimage, and indeed, the most profound pilgrimage we make is from ashes to ashes, from dust to dust. But let us remember that between the ashes, we carry within us the divine fire, the spark of Creation, and the very breath of God. And let us also remember that this grand pilgrimage is no linear journey. There will be steps forward and back. There will be mountains and valleys. But all along the way, there will be altars of all kinds for us to rekindle our fire, sacred spaces both high and low and everywhere in between.
Wherever we are in our journey, my hope for us is:
- That we will always know the grace that allows us to begin again and again, whether we feel like we are leaping forward or falling behind.
- That the God that sometimes shows up in grand ways on mountains with beautiful light and awe inspiring voice will be just as known along the roads, around the tables, in small pieces of bread and sips of wine
- And finally, my hope is that we would help one another rekindle and carry these flames of divinity we hold within us on that grand pilgrimage from ashes to ashes.