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Ready or Not
The Reverend Matt Gaventa
February 23, 2020
Exodus 24:12-18; Matthew 17:1-9
A Reading from the Book of Exodus
The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. To the elders he had said, “Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.” Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.
A Reading from the Gospel of Matthew
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. 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.”
There is a sort of tragedy to the transfiguration that I can’t let go of. We are seventeen chapters into Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus and Peter and James and John have by now spent some stories together. These core disciples have seen so many different versions of this Jesus — they’ve seen Jesus the healer, and Jesus the prophet. They’ve seen Jesus the miracle-worker, and Jesus the storyteller. It would be trivial I think for them to assume by then that they had seen all the sides of Jesus that Jesus has to offer, but of course that’s not quite true. They go up the mountain, and in this sacred place. Jesus shows a side of himself that none of them have yet seen. “His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” And the revelation isn’t just that Jesus has shiny skin; it’s something about his very essence. Moses and Elijah are there, signifying easily to this audience that Jesus is truly something of the divine. And I can’t read this without feeling this profound joy for Jesus, that finally seventeen chapters into the story, he gets to feel safe enough, somewhere, to share with people who he really is inside. It’s a beautiful moment.
But the tragedy is how quickly it dissolves. “As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” They’ve had this beautiful moment, tender moment, these friends, away from the world, away from their worries, they’ve been honest with each other, really, for the first time, and it’s beautiful, and what I want as a reader and as a reader who cares about these people, I want this tenderness to continue. Peter does, too, of course — he wants to build houses, right there on the mountain, almost as if he knows that once they go down hill, something about this epiphany goes away. Something fades and dies. Tell no one about this vision, Jesus commands them. He commands them. It’s not a normal turn of phrase for Matthew’s Messiah. It shows up only at the most serious injunctions. I am the Son of God and I hang out with Moses and Elijah and you should tell nobody about it. It’s our little secret.
You have to put the transfiguration back in the bottle. Not so in this morning’s Exodus reading. God calls Moses up the mountain, too, but it’s hardly for a private chat. God covers the whole mountaintop in a cloud. The cloud lingers there for days. God on the mountaintop with Moses is visible for twenty miles in every direction, and the whole nation of Israel is sitting there at the bottom. There’s no missing that Moses when he comes down that mountain has been up there talking with God. It is the definition of a public event in Israel’s life. But not this one. Not this. Jesus must be a little worried about something in the world down below. Jesus knows that even though they’ve seen the miracles, and they’ve heard the parables, and they’ve listened to the prophecies. Jesus knows that the world isn’t quite ready for him in his fullness. Not yet. Not until I’m gone, he says. Not until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead. It’s not time. We’ve had our little transfiguration fun. And now we have to put it away.
A number of years ago, I sat in church pews not so different from these here today with a friend and a fellow pilgrim, let’s call him Thompson. Thompson was a longtime member at that church, about my age, and once I started worshiping there, we hit it off pretty quickly. Thompson was good for a lunch after worship. Thompson was good for an extra pair of hands when the youth group needed it, or when the choir needed a spare voice. Thompson and I became friends from church, and we stayed friends from church for a long time — close enough friends from church that Thompson came to Sarah’s and my wedding, alongside a bunch of other friends from church. And I thought that I knew Thompson pretty well. And then one night before some church meeting Thompson and I went out to grab dinner, and I guess it was time for one of those mountaintop conversations. And Thompson decided he wanted to show me who he really was. And so he told me what I had long suspected but never figured out how to ask. He told me that he was gay. And then he told me not to tell anybody. Because the church wasn’t ready for him in his fullness.
I have to admit that I found this almost inconceivable. I knew that church. I loved that church. I loved the Gospel I heard in that church every week. I loved the stories I heard about a God who welcomes everybody and loves everybody and so loves everybody that he gave his only beloved son. I knew the people in that church, I could not imagine that they would cast so much as a stray glance at Thompson if they knew one way or another who he decided to love. But of course, I’ve never had to worry about whether a church was ready or not for me. And Thompson knew a lot better than I did. He’d grown up gay in a church in the Deep South and he had the scars to prove it. And now he’d found this church where he could worship and sing and volunteer and hear the gospel of a welcome God proclaimed every Sunday, and he knew that the gospel he heard every Sunday included him. He loved that church. He needed that church. And the last thing he wanted to do was run the risk that some corner of that church still wasn’t ready. He didn’t want his own heart broken. So, at his request, he and I took that little moment of transfiguration. And we stuffed it back in the bottle. “Tell no one until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
Of course, the Transfiguration story isn’t strictly about Jesus’s sexuality. It would diminish the fullness of who Jesus is to make too simple a claim. What echoes for me isn’t anything specific about who Jesus was. What echoes is the world down the mountain that just can’t quite get ready, a church down the mountain that just can’t quite get ready. It wasn’t so long ago that our own denomination was arguing about whether women should be ordained into ministry and one of the arguments went well maybe they should be, but I just don’t know whether we’re ready. And just as Thompson and I were breaking bread together our denomination of course was arguing about whether gays and lesbians should be ordained into ministry and one of the arguments went well maybe they should be, but I just don’t know whether we’re ready. Even now with those old laws off the books, even now in a denomination that advertises its welcome, even here at UPC with our own beautiful language of inclusivity carved onto our bulletin and hopefully our hearts, even now I hear us speaking in such hushed tones about this almost unimaginably beautiful transfiguration. I can hear us saying. I just don’t know whether we’re ready. “Tell no one until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
But I have news this morning, friends. The Son of Man has been raised from the dead. So it’s time to be ready. It’s past time to be ready. The Son of Man is raised from the dead, and Jesus’s secret is long out. What happened on that mountaintop has not stayed on that mountaintop. For a time, perhaps. For a few chapters, as the disciples wound their way towards Jerusalem. For a few months, perhaps, as the final moments of Matthew’s Gospel unfolds. For a time it was just whispers, rumors, about who this Jesus might really and truly be. But eventually. Eventually, transfiguration comes out. Eventually, Jesus in his fullness was not ready to be contained, not by the mountaintop, and not by the grave, and certainly not by the readiness of the world. Which means that the gospel we proclaim on this Transfiguration Sunday is not just the gospel of Jesus the radiant son of God, face shining like the sun. The gospel we proclaim this morning is the tragedy of transfiguration redeemed and restored, a world finally made ready for Jesus in his fullness, a world God has prepared for each of us in our fullness, a world transfigured and reborn. And so the gospel says to a church that tells its women who want to lead: I don’t know if we’re ready. And to a church that tells its gays and lesbians who want to serve: I don’t know if we’re ready. And to a church that tells its trans and gender-queer people who want to belong: I don’t know if we’re ready. The gospel says: Christ is risen. And Christ is transfigured. And Christ is fully here. Ready or not.
I know some of you still struggle. I want you to know that I am happy and eager to talk. I can tell you, at the very least, that this did not always feel like my fight. By the time I started down the path towards ordained ministry, our denominational struggle over the polity of full inclusion was winding its way towards resolution, and it felt like the last thing anybody needed was one more voice come off the bench. I thought the polity could take care of itself just fine without me. But polity, of course, is not really where the fight is. No polity can force a church to be ready. No polity can eradicate the thousand little pinpricks that our women in leadership feel in churches still lingering with patriarchy. No polity can obliterate the snide remark or the stray glance that make GLBT worshippers feel unwelcome, even in a church with welcome spray-painted over every entrance. No polity can force upon us a church that joyfully celebrates the fullness of all the children of God here in this place. No polity can make us ready. No polity can make Christ risen. But Christ is risen. The fullness of the risen Christ is in this place. His face radiates like the sun. His clothes are blinding white. And he is here for all of God’s transfigured people. Ready or not.
So there’s work to be done. The transfiguration is tragic only if we let it be tragic. There’s work to be done to make our church ready to celebrate the fullness of creation that is already in our midst. That’s why we’re gathering up every Sunday in this season to hear stories about gender justice, as we did last year with parents, hearing stories of GLBT youth. That’s why we are striving, as it says in our inclusivity statement, striving to embody God’s love for the diversity of creation by affirming the dignity of all persons as created in God’s image, that we welcome people of all races, cultures, sexual orientations, gender expressions, and socioeconomic status in all ministries of the church. That we strive to welcome all God’s creation here in all its fullness. This striving is not easy work. It is not meant to be easy work. But it is overdue work. It is past time to do the work. Because Christ is already risen. And it is work we can do. Because Christ is already risen. And transfigured. And here. By the grace of God. He wants nothing more than to sit down with us. And break bread with us. And tell us something about who he really is.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
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